A two-year project funded by the National Science Foundation is laying the groundwork for meeting society's growing demand for citizens literate in computer science by integrating computing with elementary school mathematics – an approach that holds promise for democratizing access to computer science education and promoting diversity within the U.S. technology workforce.
The Track 1 Exploratory Integration Project is a collaborative partnership among researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and faculty and students at Champaign Unit 4 Schools.
The $550,000 project is a component of a larger $1.2 million grant from the NSF STEM+C initiative to the University of Chicago. The NSF STEM+C initiative supports research and development of curricula related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computing for primary and secondary schools.
A main objective of the work at Illinois is the development of research-based learning trajectories for each grade level that articulate the learning goals, the developmental paths to achieve them, and possible activities that will help students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in each discipline.
To jump-start that process, K-5 teachers at Kenwood Elementary School in Champaign are developing new learning modules that embed computer science instruction within the Everyday Mathematics curricula currently used at the school.
The Everyday Mathematics curricula, which span pre-K through sixth grade and align with the Common Core standards, were developed at the University of Chicago under Andy Isaacs, director of the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education. Isaacs also is the principal investigator on the NSF STEM+C grant.
Combining computer science with core content areas such as mathematics is crucial because it maximizes instructional efficiency for time-crunched schools while bridging the digital divide, giving all students opportunities to learn computing, said Todd Lash, computer science teaching specialist and instructional coach at Kenwood.
"Providing enriching early experiences is really critical," said co-principal investigator Maya Israel, a professor of special education at the U. of I. "By the time many kids enter middle school, they have opted out of math and science because their limited access to these experiences tells them they probably won't be good at these things."
Israel oversees data collection and analysis for the Track 1 project and advises on content development for struggling learners.
"Computing education is literacy for the 21st century, and that's why we have to provide it in all grades and to as broad a range of students as possible," said co-principal investigator George Reese, director of the Office of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education at Illinois. "There are lessons we've learned in terms of how kids learn math that we can apply to how kids learn computing. We know that kids learn best when they're allowed to engage in social learning around big ideas."
Three years ago, Kenwood faculty members took the innovative action of adopting a vision statement that placed technology literacy foremost in the school's educational mission, Lash said. All of Kenwood's 327 students currently take one 40- to 60-minute computing class weekly along with computer science activities related to the project.
As part of the combined mathematics-computer science curricula, Kenwood students use Scratch, a block-based programming language, to create their own programs that draw polygons. They also engage in logic and mathematics puzzles that don't require computers.
Students at Kenwood embraced the computer science content and the opportunities for collaborative learning when teachers pilot tested the first set of prototype lessons during the fourth quarter of the 2014-15 academic year, Lash said.
"Collaboration is something that's encouraged. It's 'we'd like you to talk to your peers and build things together' instead of 'sit quietly in your seat and work on this,'" Lash said. "The kids are super-engaged. It appeals to pretty much every kid, and they're very engrossed. They really like the idea that if you get stuck on something, you have to take the problem apart, reiterate on it and get immediate feedback."
Despite growing demand from parents for computer science education, "schools haven't caught up," and experts estimate that just 10 percent of K-8 children in the U.S. are being taught computing or coding, said Lash, who is a member of other teams that are rewriting the national computer science standards for teachers as well as technology learning pathways for several states' education policies.
"The one thing that isn't being done is integrating computer science in a really meaningful way into a core curricular subject, so we're unique in that aspect."
Kenwood teachers have completed prototype lessons for the third instructional quarter and will begin writing the second-quarter curricula later this year, Lash said. Teachers will then implement the lessons in their classrooms, critique and revise the curricula, with a final round of testing to occur at both Kenwood and Westview elementary schools in early 2017.
The research team also plans to develop a website so that educators, researchers and other interested parties can explore and download the integrated curricula, sample tasks, assessments and other instructional resources related to computer science education, Israel said.
Cinda Heeren, a senior lecturer in computer science at Illinois, and T. Andrew Binkowski, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago's Computation Institute, also are co-principal investigators on the project.