Microsoft, NYU Aim to Woo Preteens to Math, Science

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Microsoft is teaming up with New York University and other universities to launch an institute to research how gaming can be used to encourage U.S. middle-school students to take an interest in math and science.

During a speech at NYU in Manhattan Tuesday, Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie will unveil the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI), a joint effort between Microsoft Research, NYU, Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), Dartmouth College, Parsons, Polytechnic Institute of NYU, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Teachers College.

The institute will have a research lab on site at NYU that will be co-directed by Ken Perlin, a professor at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Jan Plass, an associate professor in NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU.

Microsoft undertakes a host of efforts to help lure children at a young age through the educational system to computer programming in the hopes that they eventually will become users of the company's development tools and other software. The new institute is a part of this continued work, said John Nordlinger, senior research manager for Microsoft Research's gaming efforts.

The G4LI initially will take a three-year, three-phased approach to its research using US$1.5 million in funding from Microsoft and an additional $1.5 million from partners in the consortium. However, Plass said the institute is seeking additional funding so has no set end date for its work.

The first phase of research will be to work with partners in the New York school system -- in schools with a diverse sampling of children from different income, race and ethnic backgrounds -- to observe how they play games and see what keeps them interested. Researchers then will publish these findings.

"What we're trying to understand is what is it about games that is so engaging and motivating that it keeps players coming back," Plass said. The ultimate goal of this is "to set the same principles in the development of educational" materials, he said.

Researchers hope to come up with design principles for educational games in the second phase of their work and then, in the third phase, come up with new educational software for middle-school children.

Researchers will use games based on Microsoft's XNA Game Studio -- a development environment for building games based on the C# programming language -- as well as the development environment itself in their work.

NYU's Perlin said U.S. middle-school students, who are in grades six, seven and eight and typically aged 11 to 13, are an especially important group to focus on because they often lose interest in math and science at that time in their educational development.

"The technology-education pipeline, when you look at the [kindergarten through grade 12] process, is straightforward," he said. It's fairly easy to engage children in math and science up to fifth grade and then through grades nine to 12, Perlin said. But in grades six through eight, "there is an alarming drop off in the interest in math and science," he said.

"The reason we're focused on six through eight is studies consistently show that's where the pipeline is broken," Perlin said. He said that this is a time in children's lives when "social motivation" starts mattering a lot more, and peer pressure may contribute to a lack of interest in these subjects.

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