Girls, Games And Science


By Kelly Hollis

The overall number of students sitting the Higher School Certificate (HSC) increased between 1992 and 2014; however, in this same timeframe, the number of students studying a science subject for the HSC (for example, chemistry, biology and physics) has not maintained the same trend (Phillips, 2014).

The percentages of females studying each of these subjects and all science subjects is summarised as:

HSC Science Subject 1992 2014
Number of females Total cohort % females Number of females Total cohort % females
Biology 12180 19177 64 10508 17138 61
Chemistry 6254 14117 44 5011 11173 45
Physics 3503 12591 28 2044 9598 21
Overall % of females in science 48 46

(Board of Studies, 2015)


As seen in the data above, the overall number of students studying a science subject in the HSC has decreased quite considerably. Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist, noted that only three percent of primary teaching time in Australia is spent on science and stressed that there is the need for a more strategic approach to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, starting in the primary years (Head, 2014).

Although the girls that study these science subjects achieve good grades, some still feel less competent than their male counterparts. Even though both sexes have identified science as challenging, boys often report more confidence in class than the girls that are enrolled in the same subjects. Of great concern is that when the challenges within the content increase, girls become less engaged and this correlates with the reduction of girls enrolling in these subjects in post-compulsory science (Mitchell & Hoff, 2006).

Girls and Games

There is a suggestion that females prefer to work and interact with humans rather than machines and therefore are not interested in computers (Elliot & Prescott, 2014). This idea is reflected in the commercial toys that are marketed towards girls that are based around beauty/fashion, cooking and parenting (TEDxOrangeCoast, 2014). In the 2014 Digital Australia Report, it was found that the percentage number of female gamers between the ages of 11 and 15 years has increased from 38 percent to 47 percent since 2005. So, although the commercial approach to girls’ toys remains similar to those that were available during the war (TEDxOrangeCoast, 2014), girls’ attitudes towards games are shifting.

Robertson (2011) found that both male and female students believe that games can offer a number of learning opportunities, but male students prefer the pedagogical approach of game-based learning in comparison to females.

The use of ICT in the classroom helps to improve the motivation and attainment levels of both boys and girls; however, there are clear differences in the preferences that the students identify: female students use technology more for school work, whereas males use it more for leisure purposes; girls are more dependent on school in their use of ICT and for guidance on how to use it; girls prefer social and creative uses of technology such as working collaboratively; more girls than boys see technology as a way to further develop their interests and learning within a subject; girls are more productive than boys in using technology for educational purposes; and girls’ interest in the use of technology decreases with age (Kent & Facer, 2008). These preferences of females do not show that they have no interest in using games and technology in the classroom, just that these preferences are different to those of their male counterparts.

The main difference in preferences for game-based play between boys and girls seems to be related to their motivation to play. Girls show a larger preference towards creative play than boys, while boys are motivated by the opportunities to compete with and outdo each other (Admiraal et al, 2013). Girls consider themselves to be less competitive than boys and therefore less confident about being able to master competitive games (Robertson, 2011). Games that involve exploration, collaboration, challenge and sophisticated design elements appeal to girls (Gwee, Chee & Tan, 2013).

As girls have expressed that they see the connection between the use of games and education (Robertson, 2011), educators can work to integrate game-based learning into their classrooms in an attempt to help to increase girls’ engagement in science.

Both boys and girls have been found to demonstrate greater learning gains after taking part in game-based learning pedagogy compared to a regular lesson series facilitated by the teacher. The difference in learning gains between girls in the game-based learning scenario with the control group were seen to be bigger than that of the boys (Admiraal et al, 2013), showing that there is the opportunity for games to help improve the girls’ understanding and therefore confidence in any area of study.

Digital Game-Based Learning in Science

Children enter school with a natural interest in the world around them; however, some science classes do not allow students to explore these interests. Across the world, students spend time taking part in lecture-style classes and memorising facts in order to participate in standardised testing. They can often lose interest in science as they move beyond primary school. As a result of this, it is essential that science classrooms are transformed to include activities or pedagogical approaches that help to cultivate and maintain the students’ natural motivation and interest in pursuing science (Ching, 2012). A pedagogical approach that includes game-based learning has been advocated as a promising one to create engaging science curriculum experiences (Li & Tsai, 2013).

Science is a discipline that encompasses a wide range of topics. The development of an immersive and contextualised pedagogy may help to engage learners meaningfully (Barab et al, 2009). The benefit of context-based learning in science is that it may lead to more engagement from students, along with increasing their interest in pursuing science further by providing them with real-world contexts from the students’ lives outside of school as well as social or global issues (Fensham, 2009). When a student is able to emotionally link a subject with an experience, he is able to create a memory that holds a ‘privileged place’ which is easier to access in future situations. This emotion is then able to be linked with other memories and learning experiences, allowing the student to build a collection of knowledge that helps to improve the way he accesses these memories (Routledge, 2009).

A number of digital games such as SURGE, Supercharged (Li & Tsai, 2013) and Mission Biotech attempt to engage the players in rich contexts. In each game, students are challenged to solve a challenging problem using scientific tools, principles and practices. In particular, Mission Biotech attempts to engage students in a rich context that is modelled on a working biotechnology laboratory. Whilst playing the game, students are challenged to negotiate problems by interacting with the tools and processes that would be present in these real-world situations (Sadler et al, 2012). (For more information on Mission Biotech, visit

Along with helping to provide students with a strong contextual approach to science, digital games can assist students in building a number of the skills that they require in order to achieve in this subject. These skills include spatial cognition, visual attentional processing, perceptual motor skills, problem solving (Li & Tsai, 2013), model-based reasoning and hypothesis testing (Ching, 2012), as well as critical thinking, creativity and mastery and application of target concepts (Sadler et al, 2012).

During the play of digital games, players experience some form of conflict or context that requires a decision-making process that addresses the conflict and allows them to advance through the game (Sadler et al, 2012). This decision-making process requires students to develop hypotheses on how they are to progress, similar to the development of hypotheses in the scientific method. The players then experiment in the game with their hypothesis and, if they fail, they are able to immediately re-evaluate their choices to determine the correct plan of action (Ormsby, Daniel & Ormsby, 2011).

Games provide problem-based and contextually meaningful challenges that require the students to learn scientific content in relation to the goals set by the game. They allow for the ‘just-in-time’ embedding of authentic resources and tools whose meanings are in relation to a particular task, being the game, not just because the teacher or the textbook has told the student that they are important (Barab et al, 2009).

Alongside individual problem solving, implementation of game-based learning has the potential to provide students with opportunities to undertake collaborative problem solving. By employing this instructional strategy, teachers are providing students with the opportunities to exchange their experience and knowledge through discussion and to share the load of information processing with their peers. Collaboration may also help to increase the students’ engagement levels (Li & Tsai, 2013). Students are able to collaborate through discussion forums and blogs, also allowing them to explore their creativity in conjunction with game play (Routledge, 2009).

Games are powerful levers of creativity. In particular, ‘sandbox games’ such as Minecraft serve as catalysts for interest-driven learning by allowing students to create representations of various concepts that they explore in their learning. Open-ended sandbox games are able to provide students with a space to embark on a personally meaningful intellectual journey. They present ‘possibility spaces’ that allow players to navigate the space through their choices and actions, which allows them to develop new ways of knowing and learning (Ching, 2012). This ability to freely construct within the game space allows students to explore models in science. Students who have been able to construct and interpret models of difficult scientific concepts have shown gains in their learning attainment over students who have not (Jackson, Dukerich & Hestenes, 2008).

Two videos show student examples of the use of Minecraft in the exploration of their understanding of particular science concepts. The first is a simple concept of the states of matter created by a Year 7 student ( In the video, it can be seen that the student has used the environment of Minecraft to create models of the particles as they behave in the three different states. The second video has been created by a student in a higher grade level ( It shows a very detailed model of a molecule of DNA, with the student providing a detailed explanation using his voice while recording the video to explain the various components of his model.

Although both of these videos show very different concepts within the science curriculum, they both show that Minecraft provides the students with the platform to demonstrate their understanding in a creative and innovative way.

Increase Girls’ Engagement in Science

When implementing digital game-based learning pedagogy in science, it has been found that students can significantly improve their learning and female students benefited from the pedagogical approach as much as their male counterparts. This finding is very encouraging for teachers who are contemplating implementing game-based learning in all subjects, including science (Joiner et al, 2010).

A curriculum that is contextualised and has a strong conceptual framework with real-world problems can contribute to the girls’ science identity. Student-centred instructional strategies, rather than teacher-focused strategies, have been seen to be successful in narrowing the gap between boys’ and girls’ interest and achievement levels in science (Baker, 2013). Games are designed to enhance the teaching and learning experience that students encounter; they are not replacements for the teacher. The role of the teacher is to become a guide for the students and to draw out their learning (Routledge, 2009), just like they would when taking part in a field trip or first-hand investigation in a science class.

Although it has been well documented that boys use digital games more regularly for longer periods of time than girls (Brand, Lorentz & Matthew, 2014), because digital games are able to be integrated into the curriculum, the time that students spend playing games outside of school will have no impact on the overall learning outcomes of the games played, as the students will have equal time opportunities to interact with the game in the classroom. Even though girls spend less time on games than boys, they are found to participate in game play for enough time to make meaning of the content, allowing them to participate in the learning activities designed to accompany the game-based strategies and meet the necessary learning outcomes (Gwee, Chee & Tan, 2013). Girls have been found to spend more time using technology for school work, study and homework than boys, demonstrating a stronger work ethic than boys, along with greater levels of self-reliance (Ferrar, Olds & Walters, 2012). By encouraging girls to play digital games in the context of science, educators can hope to pique girls’ interest and engagement in the subject (Sadler et al, 2012).

Girls who are encouraged to spend more time interacting with computers and technology may find that their technological confidence increases. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can be successful in a well-defined area such as science and, by providing girls with opportunities to increase their mastery experiences through successfully completing science-related tasks, along with receiving positive messages, this confidence can be achieved (Baker, 2013).

In order to make game-based learning in science engaging for girls, it is important for teachers to develop strategies using games that contain the characteristics that appeal to them. Some of the characteristics that have been identified as appealing to girls include a focus on stories and characters with real-world settings that allow the girls to achieve success through exploration and social interactions rather than combat and hierarchical scoring (Robertson, 2011). Girls also prefer to be given an explanation about the use of technology before starting activities (Kent & Facer, 2008). Therefore, teachers are critical to the successful implementation to any major change in the classroom, including game-based learning (Ormsby, Daniel & Orsmby, 2011).

Since beginning her career, Kelly Hollis has always put her students first. As a high school science teacher, Kelly strives to ensure her students are actively engaged and involved in their learning, while integrating technology into the curriculum. Kelly is a co-moderator of the #aussieED Twitter chat.

For a full list of references, email

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