SESP Receives $1M Spencer Award to Expand Computational Literacy in Schools

SESP Receives $1M Spencer Award to Expand Computational Literacy in Schools

computer literacy

A team at the School of Education and Social Policy received a prestigious Lyle Spencer Research Award of nearly $1 million to expand computational literacy in schools. Northwestern is the only school in the country to receive two Lyle Spencer awards this year.

This three-year project seeks to “broaden participation in our computational future” by incorporating computational literacy into required high school science and mathematics courses, according to assistant professor Michael Horn, who is leading the research team. Today’s education system is not producing enough computational professionals to fill the demand, and women and minorities remain significantly underrepresented.

“One of the most important aspects is making sure that all students have access to tools and knowledge to go into whatever fields they want,” says Horn. He points out that all job fields are becoming more computational in nature, and the STEM fields especially will continue to require increasing levels of computational ability.

The Northwestern research team will study a model in which computational literacy curricula are embedded throughout required biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics course work. Co-researchers on the project are professors Uri Wilensky, Kemi Jona and Kai Orton.

Within required high school classes in math and science, the project seeks to better reflect the computational nature of job fields. “We want to make high school courses more realistic and to help make science in the schools more interesting and engaging,” says Horn.

“Infusing computational literacy into courses is at the heart of what we do,” Horn says. For that purpose, the project is developing the following:

  • Activities embedded in existing courses
  • Assessments for computational thinking
  • Teacher professional development
  • A taxonomy of computational thinking practices for STEM fields

Afterward, the Northwestern team will implement the new strategies in three Chicago-area high schools serving under-resourced students.  Partner schools include Lindblom High School in Chicago and Evanston Township High School in Evanston.

The project builds upon prior work at Northwestern, including the GK-12 project that puts science graduate students into K-12 classrooms; the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, which offers agent-based computer models for learning; the iLabs project, which gives high school students remote access to cutting-edge laboratory equipment for science activities; and other related computational curriculums that have been developed over the past six years.

Lyle Spencer Research Awards are intended for “intellectually ambitious research” for improving the practice of education, according to the Spencer Foundation. Committed to strengthening education, the Foundation seeks “the most challenging, original, and constructive scholarship and research” for these awards.

Professor James Spillane also received a Lyle Spencer Research Award in 2015. His research is a comparative study of school systems.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/3/16