Project Spotlight: Middle School Pathways in Computer Science

Project Spotlight: Middle School Pathways in Computer Science

Monday, December 19, 2016

STELAR recently connected with members of the Middle School Pathways in Computer Science ITEST project, Principal Investigator Dr. Fred Martin and Akira Kamiya, Teacher Learning Center Director. CS Pathways is a partnership between UMass Lowell (UML), the Tri-City Technology Education Collaborative (TRITEC), and the urban school districts of Medford and Everett, Massachusetts. The project brings a computing curriculum based on creating socially-relevant mobile apps, taught by existing public school teachers, to a diverse middle school population. 

How does your program appeal to all students? How do you get them excited about the learning?

Our project is based on prior work that showed that girls and other groups underrepresented in computing are excited by examples of computing that can impact the world, as compared to a focus on coding or algorithms. In CS Pathways, middle school students learn to build mobile apps that address community needs or serve an educational purpose. They use MIT App Inventor, a blocks-based programming environment for making apps for Android devices.

Students are naturally excited about building apps. As an introduction, our teachers focus on media-rich examples, and encourage students to make apps that connect with their personal interests and passions. Our project has a school-year component and an elective 1-week summer camp opportunity. Across the two partner districts, Medford and Everett (MA), the project’s goal is to give all students an introduction to computing during their 6th, 7th, or 8th grade year.

What sorts of social needs/problems have students focused on?

During the school year, students typically build apps that reflect their own interests and their school communities. For example, to share their cultural heritage, a group of six students made an app with pictures of the maps of their parents’ home countries, and the students saying “hello” in their native languages (“Languages4u”).

Another pair of students made “The Motivational app,” which had nine green buttons. Each time you pressed a button, it would say something nice to make you feel better (e.g., “No day is a bad hair day”; “No one is perfect—except for you”; “Your awesomeness shows no bounds”).

At the summer camps, our students worked with nonprofit community partners local to their home cities. For the Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, students made apps to report sightings of an endangered turtle native to Massachusetts. For Energize Everett, a program of the city, students made an app to encourage healthy eating.

What do you think is the most important learning that you’ve found, based on your project work to-date?

Fred: Much of our work has been directly with district teachers, and developing their comfort and fluency in teaching computer science. All of our teachers have a solid background in teaching technology, but computer science is new to them. Our most important result is empowering teachers to be comfortable taking risks in the classroom and introducing material that’s new to them to their students.

Akira: After observing the teachers in action in the classroom, the most important learning I have found has been that fact that you can see two distinct levels of learning that students experience. There is the basic level of knowledge and skill that the students learn just to able to make the introductory apps. But beyond that there is another level of learning where the students realize that computing is also a creative act. It’s a point where students can envision an outcome and create it. This to me is the moment that causes the smiling and the excitement. And it’s also the moment where they cease to be just followers of instruction, and realize with what they know they can analyze and synthesize! And this moment is what I think will be most inspiring to the students as the move on in their educational lives.

How has your project impacted the districts that you work with? What lasting changes have you seen?

Everett and Medford have a meaningful computer science curriculum that is integrated into their technology courses as well as instruction in engineering and math (for some courses). As this is our third project year, we are emphasizing sustainability so that the curricular changes that our teachers have developed will last beyond the grant funding.

What excites you most about the program/the work you do every day?

Akira: Seeing the students be excited by computing.

Fred: For me it’s the same—when I see students proud of their accomplishments; that they are using computer science knowledge to make real things that make people happy.

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