Carnegie Science Center and Pittsburgh Public Schools team up to use the math and science behind board games to engage young people in learning.
By Jennifer Bails
Girls from Pittsburgh King created their own board games during the GEMS after-school program.
Photo: Julia Morrison
Twelve-year-old Deveda Horsley dreams of becoming a veterinarian.
“I love animals,” says Horsley, who imagines herself one day caring for everything from domestic cats to elephants.
But the path to a career in veterinary medicine is rife with obstacles for this seventh-grader at Pittsburgh King PreK-8 on the city’s North Side.
“The things we see here are pretty typical for kids coming from tough urban neighborhoods,” says Kelly Mancuso, an eighth-grade math teacher at Pittsburgh King. “There are issues of high poverty and unstable home lives, so kids move around a lot. And in middle school, they start getting sucked into some bad decisions in the street.”
A new after-school enrichment program run by the Girls, Math & Science Partnership at Carnegie Science Center aims to help students like Horsley overcome the odds of their circumstances and nurture their interest in math and science. The program—called Girls Engaging in Math and Science (GEMS)—kicked off this past October with “Get Your Game On,” a series of 10 weekly sessions where nearly 30 middle-school girls work towards designing their own board games.
“Many girls, often starting around grade six, view math and science as ‘hard’ and opt out of advanced classes, cutting themselves off from future opportunities in college and the workplace,” says Ann Metzger, the Science Center’s Henry Buhl, Jr., Co-Director. The partnership seeks to excite and inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math—the critical “STEM” fields—as part of the new Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Develop-ment at the Science Center. “Women are still seriously underrepresented in many STEM fields, especially engineering and the computer sciences,” adds Co-Director Ron Baillie.
Disparities in STEM achievement between boys and girls can be even more pronounced at low-income schools like Pittsburgh King, where just 42 percent of eighth-graders in 2010 scored proficient or higher on state math exams. Funded by the Alcoa Foundation, the GEMS program is helping to close the gender gap at Pittsburgh King by introducing girls there to the fundamentals—and fun—of “board game science.”
“You might not realize it, but when you play a board game, you are actually demonstrating mathematical principles,” says Zachary Koopmans, program development coordinator for the Girls, Math & Science Partnership. “Take Monopoly, where if you roll doubles three times in a row, you go to jail. But the probability of throwing three consecutive doubles is one in 216. That catastrophic occurrence is very rare, and it’s specifically designed that way.”
To formulate the rules of their own board games, Horsley and the other GEMS participants learn about probability, statistics, and other math concepts, as well as hone their strategy development and problem-solving skills. The math lessons taught by Koopmans and a team of Carnegie Science Center educators and community volunteers are couched in hands-on fun.
Carol Goldburg, director of the undergraduate economics program at Carnegie Mellon University, led a recent session to introduce the girls to classic games in experiential economics, encouraging them to consider the strategic interactions among players. In one exercise involving the “dictator game,” the students had to divvy up a fixed amount of M&Ms between themselves and a partner, pretending the other person was either a stranger or their best friend. Thirteen-year-old Melvay Solomon gave eight of her 10 candies to her “best friend” Eyleen Bermu~dez. Yet she shared only a couple of M&Ms with Bermu~dez the stranger.
The task is meant to encourage the girls to think beyond zero-sum games. “This was more interesting to play than say, Monopoly, where the only outcome is you might win or lose,” Koopmans explains to the group. “Here, you got to decide what winning means, not some rule book or piece of paper.”
“The kids are so used to thinking that math means numbers and tables and solving equations with a pencil on paper,” adds Mancuso. “This interactive program really lets them see that math is used in a lot of different careers, and that the skills they are learning in the classroom are actually at play in a lot of places.”
GEMS is based on the similarly named GEM program, which stands for Gaining Equity Through Mathematics. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, GEM brought more than 70 high-school girls from Pittsburgh Public Schools to the Science Center over the last two years for monthly “power” sessions led by math- and science-loving female mentors. In one gathering, the students learned how to use audio software to record and edit their own cell phone ringtones. Another month they rewired electronic toys to power them by hand-crank flashlights instead of batteries.
“If the girls would’ve just read about these things, perhaps they would’ve thought, ‘I can’t do that—it’s too technical,’” says Bill Bowden, who teaches ninth grade pre-engineering at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and accompanied a group of about 15 students to the GEM sessions. “But when they actually tried these activities and realized they could do them, it really boosted their confidence.”
Bowden and other teachers say their students also began to envision themselves in science and technology careers after meeting female professionals actually working in these fields. Then, suddenly, the $800,000, four-year program ended this past summer halfway through its proposed duration due to federal budget cuts. The Alcoa Foundation stepped up locally to provide support, asking the Science Center to try to replicate the early success it achieved through GEM with a smaller group of struggling middle-school girls at Pittsburgh King.
“As a neighbor on the North Side, Alcoa-Pittsburgh is committed to educational and environmental programs that reach out to the next generation,” says Scott Hudson, principal manager, Alcoa Foundation. “GEMS is an innovative program that keeps girls interested in STEM-related education and careers as well as complements what is taking place in the classroom.”
Come December, Horsley and the other GEMS participants will be expected to develop working board games and create business plans for how to produce and sell their games online—an added lesson in economic self-empowerment. If the experience helps to keep more of the girls in school and keep them interested and focused in math and science, Koopmans says he and his team will have done their job.
And perhaps one day, Horsley will even get her shot at a veterinary career. Probability: Growing higher every day.