Gaming the STEM Skills Gap

Posted by John Scott Tynes
Imagine Cup Competition Manager, Microsoft

At a time when good jobs in IT are going unfilled, there is a strong desire among parents and educators to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in K-12 schools. The need to embrace STEM skills early is clear: in a 2011 survey commissioned by Microsoft, nearly four in five STEM college students said they chose to pursue STEM while still in high school (and one in five had chosen in middle school), yet the vast majority of those same students reported their K-12 STEM education did not leave them prepared to excel in college.

Scott Quibell, a parent who volunteers with the Kodu Club at Explorer Elementary School near Detroit, watches as a student works with the Kodu Cup software.

The time to inspire kids to pursue scientific skills and careers is obvious: early and often. Without that crucial intervention, and the chance for kids to discover that they really can master these skills, they will graduate high school believing STEM is just too hard for them. A recent survey commissioned by ASQ found that the risk of failure has a profound impact on how teenagers perceive STEM skills, with nearly half of them reporting they are uncomfortable pursuing challenging academic studies because they fear failure – and 95 percent of them see STEM skills as a risky course of study.

At Microsoft’s Imagine Cup program, we’ve spent a decade finding ways to inspire students to challenge themselves, tackle hard problems and do amazing things. Through our global student software competition, hundreds of thousands of college students worldwide have formed teams, created original software projects and competed to produce work of the highest caliber.

But we know that inspiring college students already majoring in STEM fields isn’t enough. We need to inspire younger kids, get them hooked on the thrill of learning and the joy of mastery, and show them that they can achieve real results in STEM studies.

Today, we are announcing the new Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge for students worldwide ages nine to 18. This new contest uses Microsoft Research’s Kodu Game Lab, a Windows PC software package that enables even young kids to create their own video games. Available for free and translated into a dozen languages, Kodu includes a complete kid-friendly programming language and tools to sculpt landscapes; decorate them with trees, buildings, lakes and other objects; and populate them with interactive characters, gameplay, scoring systems and more. Kids can program real game logic using nothing more than an Xbox game controller (or a mouse and keyboard, or even a Windows 8 touchscreen). To date, kids around the world have created more than 16,000 video games with Kodu, which are available for free download from

Teachers and school systems around the world have embraced Kodu. More than just a programming language, Kodu can support curriculum topics in art, creative writing, critical thinking, systems analysis, space exploration, environmental science, teamwork and much more. In a study last year by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, of five hundred K-12 teachers who have used digital games in their classrooms, 70 percent reported that learning through games increased student motivation and engagement with the curriculum and 62 percent said such games enabled more differentiated learning from student to student by flexibly adapting to varying skills and needs.

My own history is a great example of the impact early STEM skill mastery can have. When I was 10 years old back in 1981, my parents enrolled me in an after-school computer programming class for kids. By the time I graduated from high school in 1989, I had programmed numerous video games, mastered word processing and learned the basics of desktop publishing. I went on to a career as a game designer and spent four years making Xbox games before joining the Imagine Cup program. My last project for Xbox, Kinect Sesame Street TV , is a vivid example of the power of digital games to engage, teach and inspire even the youngest kids. We were aided on that and other projects by NYU’s Games for Learning Institute, created in partnership with Microsoft Research and one of several innovative academic groups dedicated to the study and practice of educational games.

I want kids worldwide to have the same experience that has so shaped my life and career. We know kids love video games. With Kodu Game Lab, they can make them, learning and mastering diverse skills in the process. When kids realize that they too can transition from being passive consumers of content to vigorously engaged creators, they will understand that their futures are unbounded and that embracing risk and learning from failure are how good minds become great.

At Imagine Cup we’ve spent a decade learning how to inspire and motivate college students to become creators and masters of their futures. I believe the new Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge will help do the same for K-12 kids and on a global scale, giving them a love for STEM learning and the confidence that mastery brings.