Developing a Consistent Approach to Computational Thinking Opportunities

Researchers at Digital Promise are developing a project to track the progress of computational thinking skills across the K–12 school spectrum through student feedback and teacher integration.

When it comes to incorporating computational thinking into everyday school work, students are at disadvantage, especially in their elementary school years. A three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to Digital Promise looks to change that paradigm to incorporate computational thinking into early education and extend the learning process into the middle school and high school years.

"We are trying to identify key competencies across a number of grade band levels from lower and upper elementary to middle and high school that can provide a wider arch to the K–12 educational experience," said Quinn Burke, a senior research scientist in the Learning Sciences at Digital Promise and a principal investigator for the project. "With all of our grants, we want to make sure that they live on after the duration of the project.  We want to give them metrics that are internally meaningful to the districts and not just meaningful to us as researchers."

This project involves working with three core districts and nine other pilot districts that are part of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.  The thee core districts are the Iowa City Community School District, Indian Prairie School District in suburban Illinois and Talladega County Schools in rural Alabama.  Each of the school districts are committed to promoting consistency among teachers at each school in order to provide each student with the same educational opportunities.

In the first year of the program, researchers at Digital Promise will be working with the three core districts to get feedback from teachers and students on what areas of computational thinking are important.  The second year will focus on getting teachers and districts involved to implement computational thinking into lesson plans and getting feedback from students on what they think of the instruction.  In the final year, the researchers want to work with the school districts to help them develop a set of metrics for continuous monitoring after the three-year research project is complete.

"One of the challenges is getting teachers believing that they can do this.  It is a little harder with low income districts where there is more teacher turnover and they are dealing with multiple challenges. We are striving for things that are not necessarily technology dependent.  When you talk about the process of decomposing problems, it is something that you can do without technology by creating recipes," Burke said.

A large focus of the work is centered around equity when it comes to providing a consistent learning experience for students across all grade levels.  "If you think about different parts of the school district having different demographic makeups, we want to be sure that we are getting responses from all of those areas and they are not skewing our results," said Jeremy Roschelle, executive director of Life Sciences at Digital Promise and a principal investigator for the project.  "We are developing practical indicators for the districts to make them valuable to the researchers and also valuable to the districts so they will continue to use them."

Through using free resources such as Hopscotch and Scratch, teachers and students also have the ability to gain access to computational thinking apps and platforms that can develop their skills. By working with the League of Innovation Schools network of 102 schools, Roschelle said his research has the power to have a high impact on schools beyond the 12 districts in the pilot program. 

"One indicator of growth is in their computer science enrollments which is something that all three districts are looking for," Roschelle said. "We will help to develop longer term indicators that they can continue to monitor for future success."

More information about Digital Promise's efforts to promote computational thinking can be found here.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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