CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
How did you decide on education as a career?
I did my bachelor’s in electrical engineering. I came to Michigan State University (MSU) and while I was completing a Master’s in electrical engineering, I was a programmer on a project called Reading Classroom Explorer to showcase exemplary reading literacy practices through video cases. It was an graduate assistantship and started as something for me to do in order to pay the bills, essentially. I was a programmer, and I remember going to meetings and they would talk about pedagogy and instructional scaffolding, and I’m like, “What does it mean to scaffold learning?” Right? As an engineer, you never hear these words, but I loved being on that project. And as I became more involved, I started thinking about the teachers. How are the pre-service teachers using this online tool to watch literacy practices and then implement literacy practices for elementary classrooms? What’s the impact on them and their learning of literacy instruction?
So, after over two years on that project, I decided I really am interested in understanding how pre-service teachers use this technology-enhanced learning environment. I talked with some colleagues who are here at MSU in the College of Education where the project was based. David Pearson, who recently retired from UC Berkeley, was one of the leads on the project. After talking to him and other colleagues, I decided I’m going to get a PhD in education. So I applied to the educational psychology and educational technology PhD program here at MSU and I got accepted. After completing my PhD, I went to Purdue as a faculty in the Educational Psychology program for eight years and then had the opportunity in 2014 to come back to Michigan State as faculty. And now, being in computer science (CS) education, I’ve sort of come full circle where I’m not programming myself, but I’m working with pre-service and in-service teachers to bring computer science ideas to their own classrooms and also how they teach programming.
Speaking of CS education, you are known by many for your work on revising the common “Ed Tech” course that most pre-service education programs require of their students. Can you tell us a little bit about that process of revising this course, and in particular, where have students gained from it and whether you have felt any push back?
Yeah, so this idea around revamping the general Ed Tech course really started when I was at Purdue. I used a funded a CPATH National Science Foundation grant called CS4EDU to bring computational thinking ideas within teacher education courses. I worked with the faculty in CS as well as the faculty in the College of Education making small changes to bringing in computational thinking to the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology course. We implemented a one-week computational thinking module and found that with even this brief exposure to computational thinking ideas, pre-service teachers reported a shift in their thinking about computer science and how they could bring those ideas in their future classrooms.
So then I started thinking, “Okay, how do we not just do a one-week module, but go further and do a comprehensive change to what we teach preservice teachers about educational technology?” So when I came to Michigan State and took over our pre-service teacher ed tech course, I thought, “we can go beyond just exposing them to ed tech tools and introduce computational thinking ideas and coding and how they could bring them to their classrooms.” And this requires an understanding of computer science. It requires them understanding what happens to their data, think about privacy and ethics. And this all requires media information literacy. So, the last few years we have changed our tech course to bring in the computational thinking, coding, and media information literacy because I think it’s important for future teachers to better understand the world they live in and how this world is influenced by computing. They can then bring that understanding to their own students because, as we know, more and more of our work is influenced by computing and we want our kids to use digital tools to create, understand the privacy concerns, the big data issues that are ever more important.
The course continues to develop over the years, and this year we are taking it one more cycle about not just have the pre-service teacher do an hour of code, but, in fact, really integrate coding or computer science or computational thinking with whatever curriculum they are going to teach. So, we are going to revamp the course even more.
And are the students are fairly receptive to the course?
Yes. I also serve as the Director of our Masters of Arts in educational technology. And we are launching a new K-12 computer science graduate certificate, and I’m working with in-service teachers here. As more and more schools try to bring computer science to their buildings, teachers without CS background are being asked to teach coding. In our graduate certificate, we are focused not on just coding but the creative aspects of coding. How you can engage kids through different tools, like Hummingbird Robotics? It’s not just about the coding tools, but creative thinking tools.
And so, no, there hasn’t been pushback; the teachers are very open to learning about these tools and they see the relevance of those tools and concepts, and they want to be prepared.
We’ve seen a tremendous push to get CS and CT into more K-12 schools. What’s your sense of what needs to happen next? Are there a few rules of the road that educators need to be aware of as they prepare to offer CS into their K-12 classrooms?
Yeah, so some states have made more progress than other states, and Michigan is just gearing up. We have a committee that’s working on standards and they have a pretty aggressive timeline over this coming year to really get these computer science standards approved. I’d say that the first step is to check with your own state department of education and see what exists in terms of standards curricula to bring computer science to your schools. The CS for All consortium is the bigger umbrella organization that has resources for district level as well as members for schools to look at if they want to bring computer science to their districts, schools, and classrooms. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) is also a great place to start, and CSTA has chapters in all states, so connecting with these local CSTA chapters is key.
But, more generally, what are the fundamental computer science ideas that students need to learn? It starts at the elementary level and goes all the way up to high school. Here it is important to check with your own state department of education, CSTA, and look at the CS K-12 frameworks that exist to understand the sequence.
In your experience, when K-12 schools are looking to develop educators to teach CS and CT, are there certain teachers based on discipline expertise that may have more aptitude to teach such content? For example, are mathematics or science teachers more adept at CS and CT? Or has it been more your experience that it really is not subject specific?
Yeah, much of this seems dictated by state level teacher certification requirements. Sometimes such certification is in career and technical education. Sometimes schools limit who can teach computer science. I’m of the view though that with the right support, we can train, educate all teachers to bring computer science to their classrooms, whatever grade level. When I say “with appropriate support”, I think we need to go beyond the two-week intensive professional development. I think it’s a disservice to students if we think that we can train teachers to teach intensive computer science at the level of CSA or even CS principles after a two-week training. It’s okay to have a two-week training, but we need to provide continued support for these teachers throughout the academic year. Whether it be through remote coaching or having coaches in place, these supports address the significant challenges of teaching CS and CT. Year one is tough because you are trying to develop your own skill in coding and CS concepts, but also trying to develop the necessary pedagogical content knowledge to transmit this information to your class. How do you take that content and deliver it to students in your classroom that makes it comprehensible to them, and how do you address students’ conceptions and misconceptions? I think the two-week PD is simply not a sustainable model to provide high-quality computer science courses. It’s got to be year-long.
What in your estimation is a major challenge left for CS education on the K-12 level? I know there’s a number of them but is there one or two that particularly stand out?
I think teacher preparation at the pre-service level is as the biggest challenge. The CS education community has done a good job with in-service professional development. But in terms of having a pipeline, we need to devote more resources and funding to pre-service programs. No, it is not easy to develop pre-service teacher programs. It is a real challenge for schools of education as nationally teacher enrollment numbers are down—anywhere from 30 to 40% across states. MSU is one of the top schools of education and even our programs have seen declining enrollments. Really, it’s a challenge for education in general. Recruiting more kids who want to be teachers, and that needs to happen at the policy level—national policy as well as state level policy to make the teaching profession attractive.
What’s next for you and your research?
That’s a great question. Currently we are in year one of our NSF CSforAll research partnership project (RPP) entitled CT4EDU. I’m really excited that we are working with elementary school teachers to bring computational thinking to their math and science lesson. We are taking the approach where initially we are going unplugged with no technology, and then slowly we ramp up to low tech and eventually high-tech. I see computational thinking as an easy on-ramp, having elementary teachers initially think about how they bring computational thinking ideas long before we get on computing tools. We start with their lessons in math and science. Then we slowly ramp up, bringing in the technology pieces through coding tools and elements of the maker movement to demonstrate trans-disciplinary nature of computer science.
It’s a three-year project. We are finishing up year one. And I am excited that we are working in schools with historically underrepresented populations in CS. We are working with schools in Pontiac, Hazel Park, Ferndale, Madison Heights, which are in Metro-Detroit area. So, the goal now is continuing our efforts on developing curricula and tools that lead to broadening participation in computer science, and being intentional about the schools we work with.
Your RPP is with elementary schools. What was the decision to partner with elementary schools as opposed to middle schools or high schools?
It was strategic as I saw so many projects that are focused on high school and I felt like there was not enough focus at the elementary level. So, we wanted to bring computational ideas at the elementary level. As kids are sitting in a science, math or literacy class, they are already hearing CS ideas such as problem decomposition, algorithms, debugging, etc. The key is to highlight these as CS principles for children at younger ages, and as children become familiar with the terms early on, CS stops being a foreign concept to them. They stop thinking, “Oh, and algorithm…. that’s math, and I don’t do math.”
We wanted to flip the “oh that’s math, it’s not relevant to me” view, and say no, we all use algorithms, we all use problem decomposition, we’re all familiar with abstraction. Having teachers see connections to these ideas in their curriculum first, and then bringing coding tools later on. Starting that at the elementary level could break down this misconception that computer science is not for everybody. So that’s why we are focused on the elementary level.