Wilensky, Horn Awarded NSF Grant for Computational Thinking Research

Wilensky, Horn Awarded NSF Grant for Computational Thinking Research

Student_thinkingNorthwestern University professors Uri Wilensky and Mike Horn have received a $2.6 million National Science Foundation grant to help students improve their computational thinking skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and to explore how a computer-oriented approach to problem-solving impacts science education.

Computational thinking involves looking for patterns and breaking down problems into pieces a computer can understand. Once the problem has been recast, the next step is programming, or telling the computer what to do, and developing algorithms for implementation.

But while computing has dramatically transformed science research and practice, it’s still a separate and distinct area of study in almost all middle and high schools. This means that school science is looking less and less like real science with each passing year.

Wilensky and Horn will partner with teachers from three Chicago-area high schools to add components of computational thinking to existing science curriculum. By integrating agent-based modeling software (NetLogo Web) with a block-based form of the software (NetTango), the researchers can seamlessly integrate data analysis, systems dynamics modeling, and visualization tools said Wilensky, founder and director of the Center for Connected Learning & Computer-Based Modeling.

“Tools like these enable students who do not have experiences with text-based programming to engage in previously inaccessible computational practices,” said Wilensky, the author of NetLogo, which is used by hundreds of thousands of educators and researchers and is the most widely-used agent-based modeling software in the world.

This grant builds off of two decades of Northwestern research looking at how to use computational tools and methods to improve science education.

The researchers will develop ways to assess student prowess and their interest in computational thinking methods as the project progresses. The online platform will eventually make it possible for thousands of students from other high schools to participate.

Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science, is director of the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning (TIDAL) Lab. His most recent project, TunePad, teaches computer science through music and strives to help diversify and expand the field of computer science.

Other projects include an investigation of multi-touch tabletops in natural history museums and the use of tangible programming languages in kindergarten classrooms and science museums. 

Wilensky, professor of learning sciences and computer science, was recently awarded the 2018 Rosaria Conte Outstanding Contribution to Social Simulation Award from the European Social Simulation Association (ESSA) and the Excellence in Design prize from the International Society for Design and Development in Education (ISDDE). Wilensky is the director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling (CCL), a co-founder of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) and has published more than 300 scientific articles and more than 400 agent-based models.  

Wilensky’s lab includes a variety of projects educational projects. These include developing pedagogies for students’ scientific theory building and creating a curriculum for computational social science and basic research projects, such as developing agent-based models of evolutionary phenomena and modeling the spread of HIV in Chicago.

The project is funded by the NSF’s STEM + Computing K-12 Education (STEM+C) program, which supports research and development of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to integrating computing into STEM teaching and learning for students in both formal and informal settings.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/12/18