Computer Scientists and Learning Scientists Join Forces

Computer Scientists and Learning Scientists Join Forces

horn_gorson_wilenskyMichael Horn, Jamie Gorson and Uri Wilensky during the first CS-LS Symposium.

Computer science classes and boot camps have never been more popular. 

But how can we help the next generation use this technology to their advantage?  And how can that education reach everyone – not just those who are drawn to the traditional notions of computer science?

Researchers grappled with these questions and more at the Inaugural Symposium on Computer Science and Learning Sciences, held April 28-30 at Northwestern. The symposium, sponsored by Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and School of Education and Social Policy, brought in researchers from around the country to discuss challenges and opportunities in STEM and computer science education.

At the heart of the discussion was agency -- how students can move from being passive learners to active participants in their education, communities, and careers through computer science.

At the same time, computer science experiences must be created for all learners, since 22 percent of the US population identifies as having a disability, said Marcelo Worsley, assistant professor of learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern.

Worsley, who teaches the “Inclusive Making” class, has had students devise a wide variety of inclusive products, including Tangicraft, a multimodal interface designed to empower visually impaired children to play Minecraft.

A physical companion to the game provides an alternative to strictly computational thinking and allows creativity to be extended to other populations.

“I’m looking to see, do they feel empowered? Do they see opportunities to impact their world, to recognize that they have agency?” he said.

Worsley stressed the need to think about accessibility during the development of learning activities, and technologies to support computational thinking and actions.

“Accessibility is often an add on, or completely overlooked, with the computer science education community,” he said. “Thinking about inclusivity helps to improve the design of computational interfaces and experiences, and computation can be used to make experiences more inclusive.

Making Coding Fun

In another session, Michael Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science, demonstrated TunePad, a website and free app that allows users to create musical compositions via the computer programming language Python. The work, part of a collaborative project with George Tech, is funded by the National Science Foundation.

It’s easy to see how kids growing up with streaming media would find TunePad appealing: It lets them create an original piece of music by choosing from a library of bass, keyboard and drum sounds, instrumental riffs, and hip-hop samples, or by uploading samples of their own

In no time they’re dragging musical elements in and out and controlling tempo, volume, and arrangement with the finesse of a studio producer. The platform encourages endless playing in the best sense of the word.

With TunePad, the final product is never really final. Instead, Horn says the platform is designed to promote content sharing—for getting and giving feedback, encouragement, and supporting collaboration.

“Computer programming enriches the human experience,” Horn said. “And music is a pervasive form of literacy with abundant connections to concepts and practices of computer science. Really interesting things happen when literacies collide.”

The event was part of the new Northwestern Center for Computer Science and Learning Sciences, which recognizes and expands Northwestern's pioneering leadership at the intersection of computer science, education, cognitive science, and engineering.

Through its academic, research, and event-based programming, the Center seeks to develop the next generation of leaders at the intersection of computer science and learning sciences and connect researchers and practitioners to create the broadest possible impact.

By Emily Ayshford and Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 5/6/19