INJECTING COMPUTATIONAL THINKING INTO COMPUTING ACTIVITIES FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS

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INJECTING COMPUTATIONAL THINKING INTO COMPUTING ACTIVITIES FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS

ABSTRACT

Advances in technology have caused high schools to update their computer science curricula; however there has been little analogous attention to technology-related education in middle schools. With respect to computer-related knowledge and skills, middle school students are at a critical phase in life, exploring individualized education options and starting to wonder "How will computing technology fit into my future?"  My research investigates how the merging of computing skills and computational thinking concepts can be integrated into computer learning activities for outreach enrichment programs to provide middle school girls a positive learning experience.

The public school classroom of today provides many opportunities for students to use technology, but it is important to recognize that using does not equate to understanding.  A decade ago it was important to ensure that all students acquired basic computer literacy and fluency with general tools like word processors and spreadsheets. However, in today’s world students need a broader set of computer-related concepts and skills to prepare them for their future education and career activities.  For example, the ability to access, manipulate and make sense of large amounts of structured data stored in a database can be important in careers as diverse as health care, graphic design, and environment science.

With respect to gender and computer-based skills, research shows that both girls and boys express an interest in many different forms of technology throughout their childhood, but they tend to be attracted to different activities. For example, girls have been shown to enjoy creating stories where they can personalize the environment and work on role-playing scenarios (Kelleher and Pausch 2007). Boys and girls both enjoy creating games, but with boys their role-play tends to involve evil fantasy characters and situations where competition to race or be better than the next person is important (Kafai 1996).  Girls need an engaging learning environment which supports their creativity and interests.  When girls are able to work collaboratively on problems which are interesting to them and fun, their confidence increases and they also realize there are other girls who share their same interests in technology activities (Hughes 2005).

Recently, high schools in the United States have shifted their computer-based courses from traditional programming courses to a curriculum inspired by foundational computational concepts (Goode and Margolis 2011).  For example, instead of learning to sort bowling scores, students learn about computing and its relationship to the world around them; they do this by working on projects that produce computational artifacts.  Programming is still a part of the coursework, but instead of being a focus for skill development, programming is presented as a tool that aids in discovery of new ideas and concepts(CollegeBoard 2010) . More specifically, computational thinking (CT) skills and techniques have gained attention in K-12 education; CT includes problem solving, pattern recognition and algorithm design (Wing 2006). Thus far however, middle school education that includes CT concepts is not common; by the time students reach high school their beliefs about how computing fits into the world they live in may already have formed in an inaccurate fashion.

My dissertation examines the potential of teaching CT concepts to girls of middle school age. I chose to focus on girls because it is at this age that girls turn away from computing education, eventually contributing to a significant gender imbalance in the computing workforce. I explored a particular learning paradigm – scaffolded examples – as a technique for engaging young women from the very beginning in realistic programming activities. I discuss the result of this approach, including its impacts on the girls’ CT self-efficacy and career attitudes.

1   Introduction

The number of students who have not seen or used a computer prior to the first day of school is decreasing each year.  U.S Census data on the percentage of children living in households with computers and have access to internet usage is rising as shown in Table 1. (Cheeseman Day, Janus et al. 2005; Bureau 2010).  However, mere use of computer technology does not equate to understanding how applications work, or recognizing the role that technology plays in everyday scenarios. Depending on the grade level computer education ranges from literacy to fluency. Though many school children of today are surrounded by technology in both school and their everyday lives, there is still a need to find applications that engage them as learners and help educators to meet their learning objectives. For the educator, finding the most effective tool or application for learning can be a challenge.  Students at all levels of the K-12 pipeline need additional skills and understanding of technology applications to prepare them for the future.

Table 1 - Children living in households with computers and internet access 

Census Year Age range Lives in household with computers (%) Lives in household with internet usage (%)
2010 3 - 17 85. 2 79.2
2003 3 -17 75 49.8

 

In 2006 Jeannette Wing began a discussion on the need to expose students of all grade levels to computational thinking (CT) skills and techniques, which include problem solving, pattern recognition and algorithm design (Wing 2006).  Others have reinforced this message and there is now a shift occurring in US high schools, converting computer science (CS) courses that used to focus on computer programming to a curriculum inspired by CT concepts, as well as integrating CT into other courses in the high school curriculum (e.g., journalism, general science) (Freudenthal, Roy et al. 2010; Ruthmann, Heines et al. 2010).

One illustrative program that has been favorably received by high schools is "Exploring Computer Science" (www.exploringcs.org). This curriculum consists of modules that can be interchanged and arranged to accommodate the many variations found in schools with computing curricula. Students learn about computing and its relationship to the world around them through projects that emphasize creativity in the building of computational artifacts.  For example, one module has the students learn about computing components through interviewing a family member for details in purchasing a computer, from the specifications discovered during the interview they are then able to further learn about how computing components meet functional requirements. Other modules have the students perform scavenger hunts on the internet to learn search tools and resources available for future school activities; through the use of games, stories and webpage creation students can also learn some basic concepts of software design and programming. Programming is still a part of the coursework, but is introduced and practiced as a tool that can be used to aid in discovery of new ideas and concepts (CollegeBoard 2010).

These changes occurring in the high school computing curricula are exciting, in that they point to an entirely different and more conceptual view of computing as a pervasive supporting technology in the world. To date however, little attention has been devoted to analogous options suitable for middle school students. This is surprising given the middle school child is considered a 'digital native, which implies knowledge and comfort with technology' (Bennett, Maton et al. 2008). That is, one might think that they are already exposed to a range of technologies and should be able to leverage that general use to explore more conceptual issues. Middle school is a pivotal time for both boy and girls; they are generally in a new school, can begin to select elective courses and are interested in exploring different types of extra-curricular activities. This general situation suggests that there might be room in their studies to introduce CT activities and projects.

Elementary and middle school students are often exposed to computer activities in summer camps (Adams 2007; Doerschuk, Liu et al. 2009; Lau, Ngai et al. 2009).  However, girls and boys do not have the same interest levels when it comes to coursework and extra-curricular activities. Programs which focus on one type of activity may not provide a young woman at the middle school age level with the motivation to learn more about computing technologies. Many of the successful programs have guided participants to create a game, interactive story or solve a problem with a Lego robot; these activities are fun and engaging for the students (Kelleher and Pausch 2006; Werner, Denner et al. 2009). For this reason it is important to consider computing tools and related activities that are of interest to middle school girls. There may also be options for after-school programs that include computer-based activities, but not all school districts are able to offer such programs. Even in schools that do offer such programs, rarely are the programs aimed at evoking an interest in how computers connect with the world around them.

With computer technology having such a broad impact on our lives now and in the future, it is important for children at this age level to engage in activities that help them see how computer concepts and skills can help to solve a wide variety of problems.  Also, many students

in middle school may not realize that CT may play a role in many real world domains, well beyond activities for which they have already used computers like music or photography.  In my dissertation I am investigating whether and how computer technology and scaffolded CT learning activities can be integrated into an after-school learning environment, with a particular focus on middle school girls. This dissertation project is addressing these general research questions:

 

R1: "What CT concepts and skills are comprehensible and usable by girls of middle school age?" 

CT concepts and skills are often discussed in the literature using broad definitions and at levels appropriate for a university level theory course.  Often CT concepts overlap one another and the skills needed to understand an abstraction needed in a problem solution may be the same as those needed to decompose and understand the problem which needs to be solved.  In fact, even before entering middle school students have been exposed to some of the conceptual methods and skill sets that underlie CT. For example, elementary school aged children begin using problem-solving and abstraction in Mathematics, English and Geography when they study word problems, learn about sentence structures and grammar rules, and work with maps.  However, prior to middle school the problem sets tend to be concrete and scaffolded to aid the student in learning the foundations needed to work with complex problems. As children develop their cognitive capacities, they should be able to explore and learn about CT in a more abstract and generalizable fashion.  I propose to investigate which and how CT concepts and skills can be injected into activities that are engaging and comprehensible by middle school girls.  This question will be answered qualitatively with data gathered during the learning activities as well as more quantifiable data gathered at points through the process.

 

R2: “How can we use the educational strategy of scaffolded examples to engage middle school girls in computer activities, while also introducing and building an understanding of CT concepts and skills?” 

In a problem-based learning environment scaffolding can provide students who are new or have limited experience with computing tools an opportunity to receive the level of assistance needed to complete complex tasks. Even with a computing tool which has never been used by a novice user, an appropriately organized introductory sequence can provide a minimal amount of instruction that engages the user to produce an artifact; success at this should elicit a desire to do more (Carroll 1990; Carroll and van der Meij 1998). I propose to investigate a particular form of the minimalist approach to education – scaffolded examples that have been carefully constructed to convey important concepts and where the learning activity is a combination of example exploration and modification (Rosson and Carroll 1996). The result is an activity that introduces concepts and skills but at the same time can result in an artifact complex enough to be meaningful and engaging to the learner.  In related work, covering only what is necessary and still relevant to the completion of an activities task has been successfully used to introduce high school girls to learning website development from interactive databases (Rosson, Ioujanina et al. 2009).  Because CT concepts and skills inherently build on one another, scaffolding provides a means to create activities for middle school girls, provide a supportive environment for learning and motivate girls to become active members of their learning process. The research question concerning the design and effectiveness of the scaffolded examples for CT learning will be answered using qualitative data gathered as part of the learning process.

 

R3: "Will learning activities that introduce CT concepts skills lead to enhanced feelings of computer self-efficacy and improved attitudes about careers that involve computing? If so why?" 

The increase of computing technology in schools has enabled students of all ages to learn new skills and develop more confidence in considering computer applications as a needed resource for their classwork. However, a student’s computer self-efficacy is also determined by the receiving of cues from within their environment, from peers and teachers (Schunk 1991). Though these cues are important to the social learning context of the student, they do not provide information on the impact of the activity or the student’s attitude on their own sense of accomplishment. Past experiences when a task could not be completed may have left a student feeling she is inadequate in her ability to use a particular technology. For students who have set high goals for what they should be able to accomplish, but who then find the computing tool working against them in finishing their task, their self-perceptions of abilities and interest may diminish.  For young women who are working with computing tools, any self-doubts may translate into beliefs that they are not well suited for work with computers in a future career.  In contrast, when a person’s perceived self-efficacy is high there tends to be aspirations to learn a new skill to accomplish one’s goal (Bandura, Barbaranelli et al. 1996). The assessment of selfefficacy and computing attitudes will be done using standard pre/post self-report data; the exploration of why such changes may occur will involve drawing connections between aspects of the girls’ learning process and the extent to which these indicators change.

INJECTING COMPUTATIONAL THINKING INTO COMPUTING ACTIVITIES FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS

 

 

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