Presentation at NECC 2009

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Prof. Dr. Repenning will be presenting "Scalable Game Design: Effectively Teach Computer Education in Middle Schools" at NECC 2009 in Washington


This lecture will present how administrators can effectively deploy Scalable Game Design as a framework to teach IT especially at the middle school level. Scalable Game Design is an approach that balances motivational and educational concerns, and covers emerging IT standards for students, teachers and administrators. Scalable Game Design addresses the need to appeal to young women and minority students as an equity effort. As a framework it enables students to quickly build simple Frogger-like games in the very first lesson, then continue gradually to more sophisticated topics such as using Artificial Intelligence to make complex games and computational science applications.


Our overarching goal is to help bring computer science to middle schools with the ultimate aim of developing a larger IT workforce. Numerous problems with existing high school advanced placement courses have been identified [1], but computer science education at the middle school level has received comparably little attention. As a result, programming has completely disappeared from the middle school curriculum and the existing IT coverage at the middle school level is often little more than keyboarding, web browsing and application use training. In the state of Colorado for instance, there is no school district with a systematic coverage of programming at the middle school level. However, it is at the middle school level that students make crucial career decisions; unfortunately, they rarely include computer science or other STEM topics. Computer clubs and after school programs are great, but ultimately students need to learn computer science during normal school hours to provide general access. With our Scalable Game Design approach, diverse groups of students learn about Computer Science through games in regular computer education classes.


Our approach called Scalable Game Design [2, 3] uniquely balances educational and motivational concerns. In their very first lesson, students use state-of-the-art game design software, called AgentSheets [4-7], to make their own simple Frogger-like game which they can publish to the Web. Students then continue gradually to learn about sophisticated topics such as Artificial Intelligence to make complex games and computational science applications. Scalable Game Design is not just about motivation. It teaches important computer science concepts and addresses the IT standards (NETS). Learning goes far beyond application use and programming. Game design also accentuates creativity, innovation, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. The approach connects psychological models of motivation, competency frameworks / IT standards, and technological environments in a unique framework:

  • Motivation: We use the psychological notion of Flow [8] to gradually develop design skills that match design challenges. By scaffolding through game design patterns, students progress from simple arcade games to games that require sophisticated Artificial Intelligence.
  • Competency: Throughout the process, students develop IT fluency based on intellectual capabilities, fundamental IT concepts and contemporary IT skills as defined by the National Academies of Sciences’ FIT Framework [9] and cover emerging IT standards, such as the ISTE NETS.
  • Technology: As part of Scalable Game Design, we use the AgentSheets authoring tool, which is a revolutionary authoring tool that was originally developed at the University of Colorado. AgentSheets is the only tool fulfilling all of the following educational requirements: 1) low threshold: simple enough to make a working frogger-like game in 3 hours or less from scratch; 2) high ceiling: powerful enough to enable middle school students to implement sophisticated AI algorithms e.g., to find shortest path in maze; 3) works both for game and computational science applications; and 4) supports the transition to traditional programming, such as Java.


The Scalable Game Design approach is the result of research being conducted at the University of Colorado and AgentSheets Inc. for over 15 years. This research has been primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We have recently received an award for an NSF ITEST grant in which the University of Colorado’s Computer Science Department, School of Education, Science Discovery (outreach program), and AgentSheets Inc. will work with administrators and teachers to use Scalable Game Design and AgentSheets in four diverse regions of Colorado: a technology hub area, an inner-city/urban area, a rural area, and a remote areas (i.e. native American reservations).


Research has shown that Scalable Game Design is a feasible approach.

  • it works across ethnicity and gender as a motivational IT education approach that covers standards (e.g., ISTE NETS for Students and FIT). Students develop skills including problem solving, creativity, working in groups, programming, design and algorithmic thinking [2].
  • using AgentSheets, both boys and girls rated their desire to continue at comparable (high) levels [10].
  • for some students the attraction of the AgentSheets design task include the creation affordances of the environment and the ability to solve problems while working through their designs [10].
  • the data supports the idea of a gaming-to-technology-career trajectory, with the high frequency gaming group reporting a higher level desire to become some kind of engineer than their low-frequency gaming classmates, when asked at post-test. There was no difference be high- and low-frequency gamers at pre-test. In addition, at post-test, more frequent gamers reported higher levels of desire to take tech classes than did infrequent gamers [10].


AgentSheets is a widely-used tool.

  • Locally: the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) is the first district in Colorado to bring programming to its middle schools by using an early version of our Scalable Game Design curriculum and AgentSheets game and simulation authoring tool in all middle schools. The reason to use game design and AgentSheets as stated by the district’s Instructional Technology Director include the need to address computational science as an educational priority; the need to appeal to young women as an equity effort; the need to meet creativity standard in new NETS refresh standards; answer the grassroots move by our teachers, not administration, that wanted to use the software; move students away from the boredom of application use and internet navigation to knowledge creation; and capture student interest in game or simulation development.
  • State-wide: Initiatives such as the University of Colorado’s Science Discovery outreach program is using AgentSheets. In collaboration with AgentSheets Inc., they continuously offer interactive science simulations and game design classes for middle school kids. In addition to the summer and after-school class programs, Science Discovery runs a Science Explorers program that includes workshops reaching 400 teachers and 2000 students in 20 locations around the state of Colorado. Last year, Science Explorers used AgentSheets simulations (e.g. a forest fire simulation) and teaching material in these workshops.
  • Nationally: AgentSheets is used by NSF-funded organizations such as the Shodor Education Foundation, to give workshops around the country to train teachers in computational science. SUNY Brockport is using it to educate teachers about computer modeling. The University of Memphis uses AgentSheets in inner-city high schools to teach IT.

- Internationally: AgentSheets has been used in workshops and classrooms in Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, Cyprus etc. In a collaborative grant by the Greek Ministry of Education (primarily consisting of European Union funds) with Tessera Multimedia SA, a Greek company developing educational software, AgentSheets is being used to develop interactive educational activities, which the Ministry will distribute to all elementary, middle, and high schools in Greece.


AgentSheets and AgentSheets Inc. have received multiple awards. We have been invited to showcase our technology at ACM1 as “best of the best innovators” and as exemplary educational technology at the National Academy of Sciences. The most recent award is the 2008 APEX award for the Colorado Top Tech Education Initiative, which honors the nominee who has put forth an Initiative in Education, for the sake of Education, that is having a tangible impact on primary and/or secondary students, teachers, professors, educational institutions and/or the community at large. It is given to the nominee that goes above and beyond to nurture, develop and promote Colorado's next, bright technology minds, especially in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills, with measurable results.

Supporting Research

[1] Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), Board of Directors, "Achieving Change: The CSTA Strategic Plan," 2005.

[2] A. Ioannidou, A. Repenning, and D. Webb, "Using Scalable Game Design to Promote 3D Fluency: Assessing the AgentCubes Incremental 3D End-User Development Framework," in To appear in the proceedings of 2008 IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC'08), Herrsching am Ammersee, Germany, 2008.

[3] A. Repenning and A. Ioannidou, "Broadening Participation through Scalable Game Design," in Proceedings of the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Conference, (SIGCSE 2008), Portland, Oregon USA, 2008, pp. 305-309.

[4] A. Repenning and A. Ioannidou, "Behavior Processors: Layers between End-Users and Java Virtual Machines," in Proceedings of the 1997 IEEE Symposium of Visual Languages, Capri, Italy, 1997, pp. 402-409.

[5] A. Ioannidou and A. Repenning, "End-User Programmable Simulations," Dr. Dobb's, 302 August), pp. 40-48, 1999.

[6] A. Ioannidou, A. Repenning, C. Lewis, G. Cherry, and C. Rader, "Making Constructionism Work in the Classroom," International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning, vol. 8(1), pp. 63-108, 2003.

[7] A. Repenning and A. Ioannidou, "Agent-Based End-User Development," Communications of the ACM, vol. 47(9), pp. 43-46, 2004.

[8] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990.

[9] Committee on Information Technology Literacy, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, National Research Council, Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press (Available at, 1999.

[10] S. Walter, B. Barron, K. Forssell, and C. Martin, "Continuing Motivation for Game Design," in CHI 2007, San Jose, California, USA, 2007, pp. 2735-2740.

Presenter Background

Dr. Alexander Repenning is an Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the CTO of AgentSheets Inc.. Repenning’s research interests include end-user programmable agents, computers and education, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. Repenning is teaching interdisciplinary courses on game design and exploring game design based curriculum. He has worked in research and development at Asea Brown Boveri, Xerox PARC, Apple Computer, and Hewlett Packard. Repenning is an advisor to National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the European Commission (EC), the National Science Foundation (NSF), The Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Dr. Andri Ioannidou is the Senior Project Manager of AgentSheets Inc. She manages local and international R&D projects. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Colorado working with Dr. Repenning. Her research interests and expertise include game design, end-user development and end-user programming, agent-based simulations, educational technology, and human-computer interaction. She engages in numerous outreach activities in elementary, middle and high schools, where she works with teachers and students to introduce simulation- and game-based activities in math, science, social studies, and computer education courses, as well as extra-curricular activities.

Dr. Alexander Repenning and Dr. Andri Ioannidou are two of the original designers and developers of AgentSheets. Both are experienced teachers of game design courses and workshops. They have been teaching game design at elementary, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate school levels in the USA, Europe, and Asia.