Project Spotlight: GUTS: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically

Project Spotlight: GUTS: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically

Monday, December 8, 2014

STELAR recently caught up with Irene Lee about her work on Project GUTS:  Growing Up Thinking Scientifically. has entered into a partnership with Irene Lee to roll out Project GUTS across the nation as part of their middle school computer science training.

1. What is Project GUTS about? Who are your participants and partners in this work?

Project GUTS: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically started in 2007 with funding from NSF Academies for Young Scientists, an offshoot of ITEST funding aimed at supporting middle school STEM programs.  It began as an afterschool and summer program that engages middle school students in STEM inquiry through computer modeling and simulation.  In Project GUTS afterschool clubs, students investigate local issues as complex adaptive systems then create computer models and run scientific experiments using these models as experimental test beds.  Findings from the investigations and new skills are showcased before fellow club members, parents and community members at twice yearly student roundtables.  In New Mexico, more than 600 students per year participate in Project GUTS activities annually; roughly 72% of participants are from underrepresented groups in STEM.  Teachers are prepared and mentored to serve as Project GUTS club leaders through extensive, on-going and in-situ professional development during the summer and within the clubs. Through a partnership with, Project GUTS has extended its offerings to integrate into the regular school day.  Project GUTS has created "Computer Science in Science" curricular modules for implementation within middle school science classes and is preparing teachers from around the country to implement these modules.  We are currently working with 100+ teachers in Chicago Public Schools (IL), Broward County Schools (FL) and Charles County Schools (MD), and we will be working in six more large districts this summer. Concurrently, Project GUTS is offering an online professional development workshop funded by Google CS4HS to provide teachers around the world with access to our modules and support for learning how to integrate Computer Science into Science classrooms through modeling and simulation. (It's not too late to register, see

2. Please describe your partnership with and how you approached developing it.

Initially, I was contacted by Pat Yongpradit,'s Director of Education, about's efforts to prepare teachers to offer Computer Science nationally.  I met his inquiries with skepticism and suspicion - I felt regionally developed programs, such as Project GUTS, that had worked for years to refine and customize its offerings to suit the needs of partnering districts, were in danger of being overrun by a "shiny" new national program. I was reassured when I learned from Pat that's national work is about getting computer science writ large into every district and school, not specifically, and that if there was quality work already happening in a region, he hoped it would be maintained as it made's national mission even easier. Later, Pat approached me in my role as the chair of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) Task Force on Computational Thinking and co-author of the CSTA K-12 CS Standards to partner on creating a crosswalk between the NGSS Standards with CSTA K-12 CS Standards.  From this broader perspective, I saw the value in critically examining the overlaps between the two standards that could be leveraged to incorporate CS into the regular school day and realized's intent to integrate CS in Science in a meaningful, principled way.  The partnership was further solidified when extended the opportunity to include the creation of Project GUTS curricular modules mapped to these standards, and providing teacher professional development to support implementation of these Project GUTS modules nationally. (See for more information.)

3. What do you hope a national roll out of Project GUTS will achieve?

  1. I hope a national roll out of Project GUTS will help us achieve five goals:
  1. to expose teachers to a powerful way of engaging students in modern scientific practices, computer modeling and simulation,
  2. to change the way science is experienced by students - within Project GUTS students are the scientists and innovators!
  3. to raise awareness that when using computer models and simulation in education, it is NOT enough to simply use models to run experiments without investigating the underlying assumptions and abstractions made within the model.  (This is why Project GUTS promotes computer science education -  computational thinking and an understanding of basic computer science is necessary to understand computer models.)
  4. to increase the (re)integration of Computer Science into the regular school day across the country!
  5. to grow a community of educators who can help shape the future of CS in Science education.


4. What advice would you give other projects looking to scale their work?

I'd share two pieces of advice: first, in addition to developing and testing an intervention during the period of initial funding, use that time to grow your network.  A majority of the funding we have to continue our work was cultivated during the years of NSF funding. Keep refining the program and reaching out to new constituents.  If the program is strong, achieves its learning goals, and is in demand, keep it alive through whatever means possible - in our case it was via a patchwork of funders.   I don't know if one can necessarily reach out and find sources of national support.  In Project GUTS' case, it's more about being prepared and well-positioned to capitalize on opportunities if and when they arise.  And my second piece of advice is to avoid the temptation to morph your program too much.  Know your strength and keep your vision intact.

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