What the Flip? Getting girls to code through games

Posted by a.hay on 11 March 2015 - 2:00pm

By Kate Howland and Judith Good, Department of Informatics, University of Sussex

This article is part of our series Women in Software, in which we hear perspectives on a range of issues related to women who study and work with computers and software.

With calls for all UK children to learn computer science from a young age, we need teaching methods and tools which can help novice programmers to learn in a way which both motivates and is more accessible for them, and which builds on their existing skills and interests.

The Flip programming language teaches coding by setting a task for users to creae a narrative-based 3D role playing game. An evaluation study suggests that girls match and in some cases exceed boys’ performance with the language, which is encouraging given concerns about the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry.

Those who teach computer science at university level know that a large number of students will struggle to ever develop confidence in, let alone expertise, in programming. Recent curriculum changes have made computer science compulsory from age 5 and, as a result, it is imperative to find ways to teach coding to young people who may not have any previous experience in the area.

We developed the Flip language as an introduction to programming through an activity which would have broad appeal, namely, giving young people the chance to create computer games with similar quality to the professionally developed ones they already play. Flip uses a bi-modal - graphical and textual - interface in which scripts are created using interlocking graphical blocks, whilst a natural language version of the script is dynamically updated and displayed at the same time. This pairing of visual and natural language is a unique feature of Flip, and lets learners to draw upon their familiarity with natural language to “decode the code”.

We ran a number of game creation workshops prior to developing Flip, and we noticed that young people were able to explain their game ideas to us in everyday language – for example, “I want the dragon to attack when the player enters the area” - but they often needed prompting to ensure that their rules were fully specified and complete. Furthermore, even after they had established their rules, the complexity of existing programming languages was such that they were unable to code them.  

Flip, however, gives young people the tools to implement their creative story ideas in their games, but also builds on their ability to express these ideas in natural language as a foundation for their programming skills. In a recently published evaluation study, we reported that the use of Flip led to an improvement in young people’s understanding and expression of computational rules and concepts.

Fifty-five young people aged between 12 and 13 took part in an 8-week project, and the majority of pupils were able to use Flip to write small programs to bring about interactive behaviours in the games they created. Furthermore, there was a significant improvement in the students’ ability to specify computational rules after using Flip .

In the context of calls to tackle the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry, we also looked at potential gender differences in our data. Although there has been some research into girls’ use of novice programming tools, very few studies have compared the performance of boys and girls in the same setting. In our study, we discovered a trend for girls to show greater learning gains relative to boys, write more scripts and demonstrate more complexity in their code.

Flip was designed for all students, particularly those who might not have an interest in programming, or lack confidence in their abilities. The central finding from this work was that a bi-modal interface which makes use of natural language can bring about an improvement in coding skills for many young people. However, the secondary finding that girls match, and in some cases exceed, boys’ performance with the language is also of interest, and may suggest that the underrepresentation of women in university computer science courses, and in industry, is due to societal and cultural factors rather than ability.

Our results do not necessarily imply that females make better games designers than males, as some media reports on the study suggested. However, they do suggest that designing tools to teach programming in a way that leverages existing skills, and in the context of a meaningful activity, can help to achieve the goal of teaching programming to all.