Tiltfactor Receives NSF Grant

Lucia McGloin, The Dartmouth, October 8, 2014

A $1,134,208 grant from the National Science Foundation will help develop interactive narrative games to combat stereotype threat–students’ fear of confirming identity-based stereotypes–in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Tiltfactor Laboratory researchers, who work to design and study games that promote social change, will spend three years researching game technology, developing students’ stories about classroom bias into a fictional game and testing the effect of their work.

Tiltfactor director Mary Flanagan and Melanie Green, a communications professor at the University at Buffalo, will lead the project, known as “An Interactive Narrative Technology for Classrooms in STEM.” The program will also run at SUNY-Buffalo, Tiltfactor postdoctoral researcher in psychology Geoff Kaufman said.

Students in introductory STEM classes will write fictional accounts of their academic and social experiences as part of the program, according to a Tiltfactor release.

In the proposed software, students control a character and lead it through a fictional life by making decisions at checkpoints throughout the game, Kaufman said. The game presents students with a general academic or social encounter and prompts them to respond to the situation.

Kaufman said that the team has not set a starting date or developed a specific plan, but he said that the “interactive narrative” format serves as a digital medium for students to craft their own stories.

During the project’s first year, developers will conduct basic research on interactive narrative technology, Kaufman said. The researchers will collect narratives from STEM students about stereotype bias in the classroom to include in the game, Kaufman said.

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John Montgomery ’15, a Tiltfactor student researcher, said that interactive narrative helps students build empathy for each other.

Biology professor Roger Sloboda, who supported the project’s grant proposal in a letter, said that despite great interest in STEM fields among students entering undergraduate studies, students often do not complete STEM degrees. Sloboda said that integrating the game platform will improve the classroom environment for everyone, including traditionally underrepresented groups.

As students often underestimate their own abilities, physics professor Kristina Lynch said, the software would allow them to share their collective anxiety and therefore relieve some of it.

“It is valuable for students to understand that what they think is real may not be real,” Lynch said.

Lynch said that upper- and graduate-level students could use this technology to increase student awareness of their peers’ experiences.

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At the end of the project, Tiltfactor will have a finished software platform that can be applied to various arenas where greater empathy or understanding is needed, Kaufman said.

Flanagan has previously developed two games, “Awkward Moment” and “Buffalo,” with funding from the National Science Foundation’s project, “Transforming STEM for Women and Girls: Reworking Stereotypes and Bias,” with additional assistance from the National Girls Collaborative Project.

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