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Bringing computer and programming skills into the classroom

Students on laptops

Grant  |  Professional Development  |  Findings  |  Outcomes  |  References

Many young students use sophisticated technology, like smart phones and tablets, both in and out of the classroom.

These early experiences build important computer literacy skills, but they are often centered on using applications or programs rather than creating.

“Given the centrality of technology in daily life, it’s important for students to understand how to create with technology, rather than simply use,” said Chrystalla Mouza, UD associate professor of education. “It’s critical that we equip them with the skills they need to produce and contribute to the field of computing.”

A team of researchers at the University of Delaware have developed Partner4CS, an initiative that helps middle school and high school teachers integrate computational thinking into the classroom.

Partner4CS began in 2012 when UD researchers received an $853,814 grant from the National Science Foundation under the CS10K Project, which aims to train 10,000 teachers to implement rigorous computing courses in schools.

The interdisciplinary team includes principal investigator Lori Pollock, professor of computer and information sciences, and co-principal investigators Chrystalla Mouza, James Atlas and Terrence Harvey, associate professors of computer and information sciences.

Integrating computer science into the classroom

The Partner4CS initiative includes two main components: a summer professional development (PD) institute for middle and high school teachers and a field experience course at UD designed to support those teachers.

Through the summer PD institute, teachers developed computational skills focused on production. For example, participants learned to use and teach Scratch, a visual programming environment that allows novice students to easily create a functional program while challenging advanced students who may have experience with computing. Workshops offered a CS Principles track for computer science teachers and a Module track for teachers across STEM areas, which helps participants integrate CS lessons into their existing courses.

Since 2012, more than 100 teachers from 25 schools in Red Clay, Christina, Brandywine, and Appoquinimick school districts participated.

“The challenge for teachers is to incorporate these lessons into a very demanding curriculum and accountability environment. We try to help them find ways to integrate these strategies in the context of math or science without taking away from their curriculum,” said Mouza. “For example, we show how students can use programming skills to create simulations and illustrate their understanding of how science phenomena work.”

To supplement these workshops, the Partner4CS team created an interdisciplinary field experience course. This course, cross-listed in education and computer science, is offered to undergraduate students across majors who have taken one prior CS course. The students develop their expertise in computing content and partner with teachers who participated in the Partner4CS PD. The undergraduates and Partner4CS team help teachers by adapting lessons, teaching classroom sessions, and leading after-school programs.

“Professional development without follow-up support is rarely effective. We developed this course to support teachers throughout the year directly in their classrooms,” said Mouza. “The students, particularly those who major or minor in computer science, also appreciate the opportunity to enhance their communication skills. As a computer science major or minor, it’s important to develop an ability to explain technology to audiences that are not necessarily experts.”

Since the spring of 2013, this course has reached 42 undergraduates, 21 teachers and approximately 500 students in Delaware middle and high schools.

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Evaluating Partner4CS initiatives

The research team worked with Kathleen Pusecker and Kevin Guidry from the UD Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning to evaluate the Partner4CS initiatives over the last three years. Through pre- and post-test surveys using Likert scales, the team analyzed teacher PD learning outcomes and found that teachers improved their understanding of CS content.

Table 1 Year 1 (N=37) Year 2 (N=34) Year 3 (N=22)
Pre (Mean) Post (Mean) Pre (Mean) Post (Mean) Pre (Mean) Post (Mean)
Self-Assessed CS Principles Knowledge

(1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree)

Creativity 2.7 4.1 3.4 4.4 3.1 4.4
Abstraction 2.3 3.8 3.1 4.3 2.6 4.2
Data 2.7 3.9 3.3 4.4 3.0 4.2
Algorithms 2.3 3.6 2.7 4.4 2.7 4.2
Programming 2.3 3.7 3.0 4.4 2.7 4.3
Internet 2.9 3.7 3.7 4.3 3.5 4.5
Impacts 2.5 3.9 3.4 4.5 3.0 4.5

Table 1 shows the changes in the average self-assessed CS principles knowledge of teachers who participated in the Partner4CS PD over three years.

Most notably, the average, self-assessed understanding of programming grew from 2.7 to 4.3 in the third cohort of participants.


Table 2 Year 1 (N=37) Year 2 (N=34) Year 3 (N=22)
Pre (Mean) Post (Mean) Pre
Post (Mean) Pre (Mean) Post (Mean)
Self-Assessed Knowledge in Teaching CS

(1 = not well prepared at all and 4 = well prepared)

Plan Differentiated Instruction 2.4 2.9 2.6 3.1 2.5 3.2
Teach Computing to Students with Learning Disabilities 1.9 2.3 2.3 2.9 2.1 2.9
Teach Computing to Students with Physical Disabilities 1.7 2.0 2.3 2.8 2.0 3.0
Teach Computing to English Language Arts Learners 1.7 2.0 2.1 2.9 2.1 3.0
Provide Enrichment Opportunities for Gifted Students 2.6 3.1 2.6 3.5 2.8 3.5
Encourage Student Internet in Computing 2.6 3.5 3.0 3.7 3.0 3.8
Teach Computing to Girls 2.5 3.1 3.0 3.6 3.0 3.8
Teach Computing to Students Ethnic Minorities 2.4 3.0 2.9 3.4 3.0 3.7
Teach Students the Relevance of Computing in Daily Life 2.4 3.4 2.9 3.5 2.8 3.6

Table 2 shows the change in the average self-assessed knowledge of the teaching of CS for teachers who participated in the Partner4CS PD over three years.

The average self-assessed confidence in teaching computing to students with physical disabilities improved the most from 2.0 to 3.0.

An implementation survey was distributed to the summer 2014 teachers to document how they translated new learning into practice. Twelve of the 18 participants who responded affirmed that they integrated CS modules into their classroom practice in several courses, including introductory and AP-level CS, engineering, physics, environmental science, and after-school computing programs, reaching nearly 1,000 students.

Learning outcomes of the undergraduates who participated in the field experience course were similarly measured. Data from surveys and reflective journals indicated that the undergraduates became more confident in their CS skills and in their ability to communicate technical information to teachers and students.

Many undergraduates noted that teaching students to code in Scratch helped them solidify their knowledge of basic programming, improve their communication skills, and share their work more effectively.

Quantitative and qualitative analysis of pre- and post-survey results showed the middle school students expressed an increased computing confidence, computer enjoyment, understanding of computer importance and usefulness, and motivation to succeed in computing.

“The best part of working with Scratch was that you were able to learn how computers work and how the websites you go on can be made with Scratch, too. You understand how they work,” said one student.

 Students also experienced a greater sense of belonging and gender equity in the field of computing. One female participant noted that:

 “[T]he best part of working with Scratch was letting people see how creative I can be and how good I am at working on this stuff. And I like showing boys that girls can do cool computer stuff.”


Delaware Dept of Ed policy outcomes

In April 2015, the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) announced the establishment of a Career and Technical Education Computer Science Pathway, a result of the collaborative work of the Partner4CS team and colleagues from Delaware State University and Delaware Technical and Community College.

Appoquinimink High School and Newark Charter High School now offer two advanced placement courses in CS, and higher education partners offer course-specific professional development to teachers UD’s CS Principles track is a qualifying course for teachers participating in this pathway.

The Partner4CS team also established a Computer Science Teacher Association (CSTA) chapter in Delaware, led by Partner4CS-trained teachers. The chapter already has several initiatives in place, including a “Scratch Day” in collaboration with a major school district and the University of Delaware.

“These computing skills are empowering and could help broaden the field of computing, which is very homogenous,” said Mouza. “A diversified computing field ensures that our technology will be applicable to a more diverse audience. For that reason, it’s important to equip our students, especially young girls with a good understanding of concepts.”

In September 2015, the team received an additional $87,000 grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office to continue their Partner4CS initiatives.

In the fall 2016, Christiana High School and Newark High School will offer the three-year Computer Science pathway.

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Related references:

Barr, V., & Stephenson, C. (2011). Bringing computational thinking to K-12: What is involved and what is the role of the computer science education community? ACM Inroads, 2(1), 48-54.

Brennan, K. (2013). Learning computing through creating and connecting. Computer, 46, 52-59. doi:10.1109/MC.2013.229

Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J.A (1999). Reflection in service-learning: Making meaning of experience. Educational Horizons, 179-185.

Cuny, J. (2012). Transforming high school computing: A call to action. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 32-36.

Denner, J., Werner, L., & Ortiz, E. (2011). Computer games created by middle school girls: Can they be used to measure understanding of computer science concepts? Computers & Education, 58, 240-259.

Grover, S., & Pea, R. (2013). Computational thinking in K12 a review of the state of the field. Educational Researcher, 42(1), 3843.

Kafai, Y. B., Fields, D. A., & Burke, W. Q. (2010). Entering the clubhouse: Case studies of young programmers joining the online Scratch communities. Journal of Organizational and End-User Computing, 22(2), 21-35.

Kelleher, C., & Pausch, R. (2005). Lowering the barriers to programming: a taxonomy of programming environments and languages for novice programmers. ACM Computing Surveys, 37(2), 83-137.

Meerbaum-Salant, O., Armoni, M., & Ben-Ari, M. (2010). Learning computer science concepts with Scratch. Proceedings of ICER 2010, August 9-10, 2010, Aarhus, Denmark (pp. 69-76).

Mouza, C., & Barrett-Greenly, T. (October 01, 2015). Bridging the app gap: An examination of a professional development initiative on mobile learning in urban schools. Computers & Education, 88, 1-14.

Mouza, C., Pan, Y., Pollock, L., Atlas, J., & Harvey, T. 2014. Partner4CS: Bringing Computational Thinking to Middle School through Game Design. FabLearn, Stanford University, CA. http://fablearn.stanford.edu/2014/wpcontent/uploads/fl2014_submission_21.pdf

National Research Council (2010). Committee for the workshops on computational thinking: Report of a workshop on the scope and nature of computational thinking. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (2011). Committee for the workshops on computational thinking: Report of a workshop of pedagogical aspects of computational thinking. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

PCAST (2010). Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for America’s future. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-stemedreport.pdf

Pollock, L., Mouza, C., Atlas, J., & Harvey, T. (2015, February). Field Experiences in Teaching Computer Science: Course Organization and Reflections. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 374-379). ACM.

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