Will video games convince girls to pursue STEM careers?

CEO and Dean of Northeastern University's Seattle Campus, Taylor Washburn is pushing a national initiative to engage middle school girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"By grade nine, a remarkable number of girls may be good at STEM subjects and interested in them," he explained to Geek Wire. "But if you study them, 80 percent or more have decided that they want to be a nurse or teacher — not a scientist."

Hoping to encourage students to pursue careers as a scientist, developer or engineer, Northeastern partnered with the Institute of Systems Biology, and the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) have collaborated and come up with a long-term plan to engage girls in STEM-related fields through three free video games called the GAMES Initiative.

Washburn says the project excites him and is unlike anything else he's been involved in.

 The plan for GAMES, which will be funded by national grants, sponsorship money and charitable donations, is certainly robust. This year, the three organizations will work together with researchers and ask middle school girls for input on plot, characters, graphics, platforms and other related information.

This data will prompt the "game jam" process made up of experts in the gaming community, who will then come up with 20 game ideas. One company will then pick three games to be developed, produced and released in 2016. If the plan works, more games may be introduced later as well as a possible online community for girls to interact and play games with STEM-related content.

This is not the first attempt at helping girls become more involved in science and math, but it is a unique idea. Washburn had the idea for a while but was told that a non-profit could not have an impact on girls participating in STEM-related fields.

But after inviting speakers to Northeastern — which offers several gaming-related courses— who talked about the power of the "games for good," concept, a light bulb went off in Washburn's head.

"It was clear that's where the girls are and that's how kids spend their time — gaming, and learning by doing," he explained.

Washburn is not worried about whether or not GAMES will succeed, because it has support from hundreds of volunteers, several industry experts and a road map to success. GAMES could be organized anywhere in the country, but Seattle is high on the list due to its budding gaming scene in the city. GAMES is an ambitious project and one that could end up influencing girls who may have otherwise brushed off STEM careers.

Washburn admits that changing attitudes that are "deep-seated" may be difficult, but he is confident it can be done.

"That 80 percent figure is a big deal," he said. "If we can collectively, over the next 10 to 15 years, bring that number down to 70 or 60 — that is a game changer."

01 21, 2014
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