UNCG Encourages STEM Education in Girls Who Game

Posted on June 06, 2024

Six middle school girls in matching t-shirts jump and cheer with their two teachers in front of the
Kiser Middle School's Girls Who Game club members and their advisors.

Although the UNC Greensboro campus is typically quiet between sessions in mid-May, the Esports Arena and Learning Lab in Moran Commons was bustling like a typical Friday night in September. But on this evening, the gamers didn’t fit the typical collegiate profile. Instead, middle and high school girls from across Guilford County occupied the consoles for their Girls Who Game end-of-year celebration. 

Girls Who Game is an extra-curricular program developed by Dell Technologies, in partnership with Intel and Microsoft, to encourage middle school girls throughout North America to stay engaged with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.  

Partnerships for Girls  

This spring, UNCG’s Institute for Partnerships in Education (IPiE) partnered with Innovate UNCG to establish a Girls Who Game program for Guilford County Schools. IPiE supports teachers in organizing the clubs and offering curriculum and UNCG Esports and Gaming Club members serve as mentors.  

“Research shows that girls start losing interest in STEM fields in middle school,” said Faith Freeman, IPiE co-director. “Girls Who Game engages girls in STEM through gaming, but it also creates a safe space for them to play. Video games are so male dominated, and we’re creating sisterhood within this space.” 

4 people stand in outside of the esports arena with video monitors featuring a welcome message for the Girls Who Game celebration.
Faith Freeman, IPiE co-coordinator; Janiese McKenzie, GCS director of Blended Learning and STEM; Brad Rhew, GCS K-8 STEM coordinator; Carrie Burch, IPiE project manager; and Holt Wilson, IPiE co-coordinator.

For the pilot program, Northwest Middle, Kiser Middle, Swann Middle, and Southwest Middle participated in Girls Who Game, with high schoolers from Middle College at GTCC (Guilford Technical Community College) and Kearns Academy in High Point.  

Lohanna Sanchez saw first-hand how esports clubs could be dominated by boys when she coached a middle school esports club. “We had around 60 students in the club but only three girls, and by the end of the semester, all of the girls had dropped out.” 

Now a computer science teacher at Kearns Academy, Sanchez jumped at the opportunity to lead a club that was only for girls. When she assured the interested students that boys wouldn’t be involved in this club, they were relieved. “Good,” they said. “Boys are way too mean when it comes to video games.” Sanchez was eager to give the girls a space to collaborate and be creative together. 

Building Solutions for Real Issues 

Girls Who Game is a Minecraft Education program. Its vision is “to create a more inclusive and equitable world through global collaboration, problem solving and innovation.”  

At club meetings, the girls are challenged to work together to build Minecraft cities with solutions to social issues that are relatable in the communities they live in.  

“They are using Minecraft to solve a real-world problem that is happening in their own backyard,” Freeman explained. “One of our participating schools is located in a food desert so the challenge to build a city without food insecurity was very relevant for them.” 

Two middle school girls give each other a high five in the esports arena.
Auburn Whitehurst and Avis Campbell, 7th graders at Kiser Middle School worked together to create a Minecraft world without poverty.

Avis Campbell and Auburn Whitehurst, sixth graders at Kiser Middle School, worked with the girls in their club to create a Minecraft world without poverty. They made sure to include homes, good paying jobs, farms to produce food for everyone, a school, shopping centers, and a city hall.  

“We learned about how people needed to live within walking distance to jobs, and how cities must have enough homes for all and adequate services for everyone,” Campbell says. 

“We made a farm for food and a wind farm for energy,” Whitehurst added. “We learned stuff from the outside world by playing fun little games and creating our cities.” 

“The challenges check boxes for academics,” says Freeman. “But they also check boxes for social and emotional learning.” 

Spartan Support for Unconventional Learning 

Two girls sit at the consoles in the esports arena and look over their shoulders to pose for the camera.
Nikola Saunders (right), UNCG MBA student and Girls Who Game mentor, works with a Kearns Academy student.

Nikola Saunders, a UNCG master’s student and esports club member, was inspired by the creativity of the Girls Who Game students she mentored and was struck by the interesting ways that traditional subjects could be taught to middle and high schoolers through video games.  

“I never had anything like this in school when I was growing up,” Saunders said. “It was great to foster comradery among the girls. I know I would’ve liked a club like this when I was young, so mentoring was so fun for me. I loved it!” 

IPiE’s Carrie Burch praised this opportunity for the School of Education to provide an alternative learning environment in Guilford County Schools. “We have some flexibility on what we can offer that traditional school systems don’t have the time or funds for. It’s important that we are showing teachers, mentors, and students that there are alternative ways to learn.” 

All in attendance looked ahead to expanding the program next year with more competitions between schools, but first the coaches and girls enjoyed capping their first season at the esports arena.  

“It’s awesome that we can bring students here,” said Brad Rhew ’10, K-8 STEM Coordinator for Guilford County Schools. “Hopefully this experience will inspire some future STEM careers for these girls.” 

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications.

Middle school teacher works with a young student in the esports arena.

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