Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, an associate professor of educational technology and director of the NeurAL Lab, was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design gamified curriculum to teach computing hardware fundamentals. 

This collaborative grant, which includes Mary Jo Koroly, research associate professor, and Swarup Bhunia, Semmoto endowed professor, at the University of Florida, along with Tamzidul Hoque, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas, will create modules that provide a system-level perspective of modern electronic systems. Antonenko believes this will address the skill gap in the current electronics industry that is contributing to the current computer chip shortage.

“Chips are used in electronic devices that we use in our everyday life,” said Antonenko. “Like most countries in the world, the United States currently relies on computer chips manufactured in Asia and the recent global supply chain crisis has affected our ability to produce and use the products that use chips.” 

There is interest in rebuilding the United States’ capacity to produce chips currently used by vehicles, smartphones and other technologies. In January, Intel announced a commitment to spend $20 billion on a new plant in Ohio, possibly spending $100 billion over the next decade. 

But once those plants are built, knowledgeable engineers, scientists and technicians will be needed to work in industries. And that’s the problem Antonenko and his collaborators plan to solve.

Despite college students using technology every day—and many entering college with an understanding of programming—most lack basic knowledge of computing hardware fundamentals. The emphasis on analytics, software development and artificial intelligence motivates students to avoid hardware-related college courses. According to Antonenko, “this limits the exposure students in these programs have to educational resources and experiences that focus on the hardware aspects of computing.”

But there is a solution to this problem: games that teach hardware fundamentals. The team plans to work with high school teachers to co-develop curriculum that uses a gamified approach to motivate and engage college undergraduate and high school students to stimulate interest in computer hardware. 

The investigators will design and test a new gamified curriculum at UF before introducing them to high school students and teachers at UF Center for Pre-collegiate Education and Training summer institutes. Curriculum for the high school level supports Florida’s Computer Science Education Standards similar to the CSforED—with the goal of recruiting undergraduate students interested in pursuing hardware engineering. 

“Computer science and engineering undergraduates as well as high school students will develop more nuanced and well-rounded understanding of computer hardware and its interaction with software, particularly as this relates to the problems our society is experiencing such as cybersecurity,” he said.

Moreover, Antonenko believes that using games that focus on collaboration rather than competition “will further support the participation of all students in our curriculum.” He hopes that this approach will “be relevant and engaging” for “populations historically underrepresented in engineering.”

This NSF Grant brings together expertise from the College of Education, Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and Center for Precollegiate Education and Training at UF, and the University of Kansas College of Engineering. Andrea Salgado-Ramirez, a UF Educational Technology doctoral student interested in high school computer science education, will serve as the project’s research assistant. 

Faculty and students at the UF College of Education are positioned to “contribute unique expertise on culturally sustaining education, motivational design of instruction, mixed-method educational research, and development of situational and maintained interest in STEM” via this NSF grant. 

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, Ph.D.