Computational Thinking for K-12 Students and Their Teachers (CT4EDU)

  • Aman Yadav, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education
  • College of Education

Project Overview

  • MSU researchers, K-12 partners in the Oakland, Michigan Intermediate School District, and American Institute for Research are developing and evaluating computer science practices and tools in math and science for elementary school students. The program includes professional development and other supports for participating teachers.

Why This Work Matters

  • Research to date confirms that professional development and tools developed by the team and implemented in Michigan schools are shifting teacher practices.
  • Schools that have a high population of students who are economically disadvantaged or do not speak English at home are targeted for participation in the study; one of the project’s goals is to improve computer science access and opportunity in schools where they would otherwise not be available.

Products/Outcomes

  • The scope of the CT problem-solving approach can be broadened by embedding it into other curricula (such as science, math, or social studies). It does not have to be presented as a stand-alone topic.
  • Participating teachers are reporting a shift in how they think about math and science as well as how their students are engaging in math and science learning.

External Partners

Oakland ISD partners:

  • Dana Gosen, Mathematics Education Consultant
  • Gerri Devine, Mathematics Education Consultant
  • Jessica Ashley, Science Education Consultant
  • Laura Cummings, Digital Learning Consultant
  • Vinos Kassab, Digital Learning Consultant
  • Teachers who participate in team meetings and summer professional development workshops

Evaluation and research partners:

  • Julie Kochanek and Joey Wilson, American Institutes for Research

MSU Collaborators

  • Christina Schwarz, Professor, Department of Teacher Education, College of Education
  • Emily Bouck, Professor, Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education, College of Education
  • Katie Rich, PhD. Student, Educational Psychology and Educational Technology Program
  • Rachel Larimore, Ph.D. Student, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program
  • Niral Shah, former co-investigator, now at the University of Washington

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Research
    • Community-based, participatory research
  • Community-Engaged Service and Practice
    • Technical assistance
    • Consulting
Aman Yadav, faculty colleagues, and teachers at a CT4EDU professional development workshop.

Aman Yadav, faculty colleagues, and teachers at a CT4EDU professional development workshop.

Many students don't get the opportunity to pursue computer science or see the relevance of computing tools and practices in their own personal and professional lives.

Aman Yadav, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education (CEPSE) at MSU's College of Education, believes he has some tools that can help both students and their teachers grasp and use computational concepts more easily—tools that can be deployed as early as elementary school. These tools can serve as an on-ramp for teachers and their students to computationally rich learning experiences that can also be applied to other disciplines beyond computer science.

The practices are drawn from a computer-science approach to problem-solving, called "computational thinking," which, Yadav says, is "the big umbrella that covers computer science ideas."

Bringing Computational Thinking (CT) into Elementary School Classrooms

Yadav's research focuses on developing teacher competencies to teach computer science or bring computer science ideas into K-12 classrooms. One current project is an NSF-funded partnership with Oakland Intermediate School District in Michigan.1 Oakland County is big—the ISD has 28 school districts, not counting charter and non-public schools—so it's a fairly large-scale project. His team is working mostly with inservice teachers in the schools.

In all his projects, said Yadav, "We primarily work in schools that have high racial diversity and a high population of students who are economically disadvantaged, or schools that have students, classroom populations, where English is not their language at home. We are working with those schools to bring computational thinking within elementary math and science classrooms."

This priority was one that Oakland also wanted to address. Heidi Kattula was executive director of Oakland ISD School Services when the NSF project, dubbed "CT4EDU," began in 2016. (She has since moved on to a position as superintendent of East Grand Rapids Public Schools.) Kattula said she and Yadav had "met virtually" through some other colleagues and "started talking about what we could do at scale within the county to improve access and opportunity for all students in the area of computer science."

Yadav credits Kattula as a senior partner on the grant: "She was part of it and she helped conceptualize it." But there are many other partners, from Oakland Schools, MSU, and a major research institute. Their expertise covers a large range of disciplines, including math and science education, digital learning, evaluation and research, assistive technology, post-school outcomes for special education students, and equity and implicit bias in STEM education.

Why so Many Disciplines?

Why get so many disciplines involved? For one thing, the team wants to broaden the scope of CT and embed it in other disciplines, rather than introducing a whole new curriculum for teachers to work into their already busy days. As Yadav explained, "The way that we have approached this work with our teacher partners in Oakland Schools is to address their learning goals within math and science. Not necessarily as standalone computational thinking, but how it could be integrated within math and science. So when they're teaching a math lesson, we ask: How can we make these computational thinking practices explicit?

"Initially most of our teachers start out with an 'unplugged' approach, so no technology, no coding, no computing devices. But eventually, we started working with them to bring more computationally rich activities like coding into their classrooms. Some of them are using [the CT] tools as a standalone, just doing a program activity or coding activity with them. Other teachers are bringing them in to teach a math or science concept."

Teacher-partner Michele Harris, who teaches 4th grade at Ferndale Public Schools, appreciates this open-ended approach. "You know we're all busy," she said. "We have all these things to do, and the part I really like about this? They just kind of initialized us with, 'What is this [computational thinking] all about,' and then they said, 'It's up to you. We want this to fit your instruction and your classroom.' But we were provided with experts from Michigan State in science pedagogy, computer science pedagogy, mathematics pedagogy, and the same thing from our ISD. We had some experts in technology from the ISD. So we were really supported in creating what we thought computational thinking should look like in our classrooms. And then we reported back to Aman and the crew."

An "On Ramp" for Computational Tools and Activities

Yadav and his team see their work around computational thinking as an "on ramp" for teachers to bring more computationally rich tools and activities into the classroom as well as for young students to be exposed to these ideas and practices, in the hope that more of them will get interested in pursuing computer science down the road.

Teachers in the project have taken up CT as a general problem-solving tool that has benefits beyond just teaching computer science.

Harris got it right away. She said, "The biggest thing I learned—two big things really—I saw my students really just did not have these strategies in life. And that was to take something that was huge, a big problem, a big project, a big whatever, and break it down into smaller manageable pieces. They just don't have that skill. So when we talk about a number story, we talk about decomposing it, breaking it down into smaller pieces so that you're not overwhelmed. We talked about that in reading, we talked about it in writing—it's a thinking system throughout life, so those skills can be applied anywhere in the curriculum.

"The second biggie was, we have to get students to stop and think, 'Is this working?' We call that debugging, finding their errors. In science, for example, they had to design an apple picker out of paper. At first they were designing these ridiculous things that were too flimsy, so they had a session where they stopped and debugged as a class: what was working, what didn't work, what to do next. They went back after the debugging session and started to design things differently.

"Many students just give up. 'It didn't work! I got the wrong answer. I'm done.' Tear it up and roll it into a ball sort of thing. At this age they still have to be reminded that not everything you do is going to work the first time and you can't get upset when it doesn't.

"I think those are the two biggest pieces of computational thinking."

What's Next?

What are dash and dot robots?

Dash the Robot

Two small robots named Dash and Dot are the invention of Wonder Workshop, a company whose mission is to inspire homes and classrooms to be places of innovation. The company is committed to developing in-depth experiences that balance fun and learning, promote collaboration, and provide enduring value to both girls and boys.

For more information

Images of the robots and kids/teachers using them are available at https://www.makewonder.com/media-resources/

Three years into the project, Yadav can now say with some confidence that the work he and his team are doing shows that teachers can see natural connections between computational thinking and what they do in their classrooms. He wants to continue thinking about how to leverage those connections so that both teachers and students are exposed to more computationally rich classroom activities.

But right now, the teachers who have taken up these CT practices are already reporting benefits. The initial goal of the CT4EDU project was simply to get kids and teachers more interested in computer science. Instead Yadav is seeing a broader shift in how teachers think about teaching math and science and how their own students have been engaging in learning math and science.

And, he said, "We've been able to scaffold that. Whether they're using more coding tools, like Dash and Dot robots to teach math or social studies, our goal is to use computational thinking to really bring in more of the coding and computationally rich tools."

Heidi Kattula agreed, saying, "I have heard teachers say that as they were learning more about algorithms and abstraction and debugging, they were learning more about their core content. They were deepening their own pedagogical understanding of math and science through the lens of computer science as the disciplines can transcend."

The team plans to recruit about another 25 to 30 teachers this coming summer and do another set of professional development workshops. They have continued to follow the teacher-partners who are already involved in the project. They have new teachers involved this past year and are ready to start scaling it up, both within Oakland Schools and with other partners in Michigan and elsewhere.

Kattula said that she would welcome the opportunity to continue her involvement with the project in her new location. "I love the research-practitioner partnerships, the RPPs, because you take the fundamental best practice and knowledge in theory and you apply it in practice. I do think that was something we were able to provide Michigan State University, a deeper understanding of how the standards and curriculum materials play out in the classroom given the constraints of our students." In turn, she said, "I've been introducing Aman to some of the district superintendents over here who would really benefit from access to the grant."

Yadav is also pleased with the project's results so far, especially with how it's having an impact on the teaching of math and science as well as on classroom culture. "I think some of our teachers are already there," he said. "They're bringing more computationally rich and coding tools into their classrooms and we want to continue that work as we recruit our next phase, our new cohort of teachers, and see what we can build together now that the teachers have done this."

What is Computational Thinking?

What is Computational Thinking?

Computational thinking is using problem solving strategies that involve breaking down complex problems into more familiar ones (decomposition), using a sequence of steps to solve the problem (algorithms), reducing the complexities of a problem and focusing on the essential details to solve it (abstraction), and using digital tools and technology to automate the solutions (automation).

Abstraction

Abstraction is about reducing complexity or identifying general principles that can be applied across situations or problems.

  1. Encourage students to focus on the most important information and hide unnecessary detail.
  2. Provide opportunities for students to represent a problem/phenomenon in ways that simplify it.
  3. Encourage students to identify principles that can be applied across situations/problems.

Decomposition

Decomposition is about managing complex tasks or situations by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable parts. Students can use decomposition to approach problems that, at first, may seem intimidating.

  1. Provide opportunities for students to break down a phenomenon or object into parts.
  2. Choose tasks where students can break down the problem in multiple ways.

Pattern recognition

Patterns are everywhere. We see them every day. You can engage students in patterning by having them recognize and form patterns.

  1. Ask students to look for and discuss patterns during activities.
  2. Provide opportunities for students to generate and describe patterns.

Debugging

Debugging is about finding and fixing errors. Sometimes it is called troubleshooting.

  1. Encourage students to "debug" when something doesn't work as they had expected or planned.
  2. Avoid the urge to fix problems for students. Allow them to reason through courses of action for themselves.

SOURCE: Yadav, A., Larimore, R., Rich, K., & Schwarz, C. (2019). Integrating computational thinking in elementary classrooms: Introducing a toolkit to support teachers. In Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference. Chesapeake, VA: AACE. NOTE: More resources available at http://ct4edu.org/resources

Sources

  1. Yadav, A., Shah, N., Schwarz, C., & Bouck, E. CT4EDU: Broadening pathways into computing by developing computational thinking competencies in elementary classrooms [National Science Foundation grant no. 1738677, awarded $998,737 for 8/15/2017 – 8/14/2020]. The team also has other proposals both funded and pending. Back to article
  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Aman Yadav and Wonder Workshop.

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