PhD Student David Weintrop Wins Computer Science Education Award

PhD Student David Weintrop Wins Computer Science Education Award

Dave Weintrop with teachers

Learning Sciences doctoral student David Weintrop wants to understand the best way to teach students how to program computers — a skill he sees as critically important in today’s world. His research work on the subject recently won an award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest professional organization for computing professionals and academics.

ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) awarded Weintrop its gold medal for Best Student Research after holding a competition at the SIGCSE conference from March 4 to 7 in Kansas City, Missouri. Weintrop’s award automatically enters him into the competition for best student computer science research of the entire ACM.

Weintrop’s research work, which takes place in high school computer science classrooms, assesses different ways to introduce learners to programming — especially the increasingly popular graphical, blocks-based approach of tools such as Scratch. Initially intended for middle school aged learners and informal spaces, these tools are increasingly being used by older students in classrooms. “My research is trying to understand the strengths and drawbacks of this decision and then taking what we learn from the study to inform the design of new programming tools that leverage the strengths of such tools while addressing their shortcomings,” says Weintrop.

For 10 weeks, Weintrop worked in a Chicago public high school — investigating how introductory blocks-based tools affected students’ confidence and attitudes, evaluating the learning gains made with such tools, and assessing how well these introductory tools prepared learners for more conventional text-based programming languages.

At the conference, Weintrop presented his findings:

  • High school learners saw these tools as easy and engaging but had issues with authenticity.
  • Learners found the blocks-based tools easy for composing programs and more readable.
  • Students perform better on content questions when presented with graphical programs vs. text-based programs, but do not perform better on code-comprehension questions

“Knowing how to program is essential for all students,” asserts Weintrop, who became interested in computer science education when he was working as a software developer. He saw firsthand how “the ability to program, or at least how having an understanding of what computers can do and how they can help you solve problems, can completely change industries.”

“Writing software for first automotive dealers, then alternative money managers showed me how the ability to program and create new computational solutions has wide-reaching benefits and is quickly becoming an essential skill in our increasingly digital world,” says Weintrop.

“The other reason I’m interested in these questions is because we need answers to them,” Weintrop maintains. “More and more students are taking CS, and new tools are emerging weekly, but little is known about how best to introduce learners to computer science.”

Weintrop sees the timing of his starting in the Learning Sciences program as “very lucky” as it coincided with growing awareness of the importance of computer science. For example, Chicago Public Schools recently launched the CS4All initiative, with the goal of offering computer science courses at every CPS high school and eventually requiring a computer science course for graduation.

“Such initiatives create an eager audience for my work, as we are still trying to figure out how best to introduce learners to computer science. The hope is that the findings from my classroom studies lead to better outcomes in computer science classes across Chicago and around the country.”

Weintrop can take pride in his new award for more than one reason. It’s unusual for a student from a learning sciences department to win the SIGCSE award, according to SESP professor Uri Wilensky, since these awards almost always go to computer science students. “I have received congratulation messages for him from computer science professors across the country.”

Photo: David Weintrop (center) with teachers Jenny Roscoe and Dan Law of Lane Tech College Prep, who taught the computer science classes where Weintrop worked on developing materials and doing research.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 4/1/15