VOLUME 31, NUMBER 14 THURSDAY, December 2, 1999

"Josie True" draws girls to computers

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News Services Editor

Her name is "Josie True." She's 11 years old, 5'1" and as online as she wants to be. With black hair dancing and arms akimbo, she looks like she bolted out of Japanese animation to battle Mothra. And in one sense, she has.

Josie is a computer-designed, Chinese-American fourth-grader, the eponymous character in a new-and unique-online computer game for pre-adolescent girls.

Josie True The game and Josie are the creations of Mary Flanagan, assistant professor of media study, who has just received a $99,920 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to get the first Josie True game up and running online where children will be able to play it free of charge within a year.

"Believe it or not," says Flanagan, "most of the thousands of educational computer games on the market are designed and packaged to appeal to white kids, with the majority of games created in a boys' 'aesthetic.'"

Flanagan says there are few educational games out there that might specifically attract girls, especially girls without blonde hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks.

"Rarely does a game feature a principal character of a non-white race or ethnicity," Flanagan says. "While some may argue that Barbie games are getting girls online, we need to ask ourselves, just what it is that Barbie games teach kids? Who or what does she represent in the minds of the players?"

In response to the dearth of girl-oriented computer educational activities, Flanagan came up with "The Adventures of Josie True" http://www.josietrue.com, a software game designed to attract young women of all races and ethnic backgrounds to computer-learning activities that are fun, challenging and full of characters from their own lives, neighborhoods and cultural histories.

"I hope to help girls, especially underrepresented girls, embrace computer technology as a tool for play, study and all sorts of creative enterprises," Flanagan says.

"Josie" has been in the works for almost two years, but teaching duties and limited funding permitted Flanagan and her students to work on the project only part-time.

"We really needed an infusion of funds, not only to develop the games without interruption," she says, "but to get them up on the Internet so girls could access them for free." The NSF agreed.

Josie games are designed to be very entertaining, Flanagan says, but that's not all. They also are designed to reinforce specific lessons in the middle school social-studies, science and math curriculums. They introduce real historical characters in their own, historically accurate mi-lieu—characters who are not only accomplished and fascinating in their own right, but serve as great role models for girls.

"The American Association of University Women produced a report a few years ago that pointed to gender gaps in our schools that short-change our girls," Flanagan says. "It reported that schools fail to engage girls in computer activities—and even if the girls learn to operate the hardware, the AAUW report claimed that schools don't have the time to teach girls how to use this technology to solve problems, learn and have fun.

"The report maintains that this fact goes a long way to explain why girls fail to keep up in science and math during their adolescent years," Flanagan adds.

Like many educators, Flanagan insists that if the information revolution is to include people of all economic classes, races and ethnicities, we need to produce computer material that excites the interest of the children who are now being ignored.

"There is a serious need for learning materials for non-white, non-male audiences, and we need to make that material fun, pertinent, very interesting and, if possible, free," she says. "And that's what Josie is about."

In the first Josie True adventure game, whose NSF development funding begins this month, our heroine's science teacher —who is also a female and an inventor—vanishes. Josie sets off to find her. Her search eventually takes her to Chicago of the 1920s and to Paris, where Bessie Coleman, the first African-American aviatrix, offers assistance to Josie and the players.

Flanagan explains that Coleman, who came along several years before Amelia Earhart, was a young woman of unusual intelligence, talent and determination, and a fine role model for any girl.

"When racial discrimination denied Coleman the right to procure a pilot's license in this country," she says, "she was unbowed. She went to France as a very young woman, where she trained and began her flying career."

To complete the search for the science teacher, players must navigate 14 smaller games that use principles of math, science and history to produce the clues that facilitate their journey.

Flanagan says some of the game's characters will speak language used by today's pre-adolescent girls—language tested among urban and suburban students. Other characters will employ speech patterns and vocabulary appropriate to the historical period in which they lived.

Flanagan says future Josie True episodes are being planned. Like the first one, they will be available online and, if funding permits, available on CD-ROM for schools or homes without an Internet connection, for less than $10.

One future episode will delve into the world of Hildegarde of Bingen, the brilliant and prolific medieval German abbess and mystic who wrote music and studied medicine and mathematics. Another game will visit the palace of Hatshepsut, the remarkable widow of Akhenaton Egypt's revolutionary 13th century b.c. king, and Egypt's only female pharaoh. Other role models on the list include Wilma Mankiller, the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Chinese Empress Si Ling Chi, the inventor of silk.

"If we, as a society, promote the concentration of technological knowledge and its power in the hands and heads of those who, by virtue of their race and economic class, already have it, we're making a big mistake," Flanagan insists.

"Computer knowledge is essential for every child today," she says. "Educational games give us a variety of tools to teach computer skills and help kids gain access to hundreds of educational opportunities in many disciplines."

Flanagan says she hopes that "The Adventures of Josie True" is just the first of many computer games to propel pre-adolescent girls into the 21st century armed with the tools necessary to navigate the immense field of knowledge open to them via educational technology.

"If we continue to rely on the marketplace to direct access to computer technology, we are denying equal access to girls, the poor and working classes and to people of color," she says. "In doing that, we continue to rob ourselves of the intellectual and creative talents of the majority of our population. How smart is that?"

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