First Computer Science-Learning Sciences Symposium Draws World's Top Scholars

First Computer Science-Learning Sciences Symposium Draws World's Top Scholars

uri_speakingComputer science classes and boot camps have never been more popular in the US and worldwide.

But how can educators help the next generation use this technology to their advantage?  And how can that information reach everyone – not just those 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 University. The three-day event, jointly sponsored by Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and School of Education and Social Policy, brought in some of the world’s top researchers to discuss challenges and opportunities in STEM and computer science education.

The annual symposium highlighted the new Northwestern Center for Computer Science and Learning Sciences, which expands Northwestern's pioneering leadership at the intersection of computer science, education, cognitive science, and engineering. The center is also affiliated with a new joint Computer Science and Learning Sciences PhD program.

Organized by Uri Wilensky and Chris Riesbeck, both professors jointly appointed in computer science and learning sciences, the conference assembled a mix of local and global experts, both veterans and newcomers to the field.

Throughout seven sessions, researchers addressed everything from computational literacy and equity and diversity in computer science to new roles of artificial intelligence in education. The workshops also featured other speakers, including several from Northwestern’s Learning Sciences and Computer Science programs.

Expert presenters included:

  • Andrea diSessa, professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Mark Guzdial, professor in computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan
  • Joanna Goode, associate professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education
  • Shriram Krishnamurthi, professor of computer science at Brown University
  • Janet Kolodner, Visiting Professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education
  • Hal Abelson, professor of computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Tim Bell, professor of computer science and software engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

For Krishnamurthi, the event ranked among the top five of his academic life. “Northwestern is an epicenter of learning sciences,” he said. “When they call, the very best people affiliated with the field come. People gave talks that looked back over literally decades of work and thought, which was an enormous gift to the younger people present. It'll take a long while for the buzz to wear off for me.”

Radical Transformation

Throughout the symposium, participants were invited to think big about the future of education. During the opening session, diSessa, Wilensky and SESP’s Bruce Sherin, professor of learning sciences, spoke about the historical context of computational literacy and other major representational changes, including moving from spoken communication to print literacy, and creating new numerical systems.

Radical transformation is on the horizon, they argued, and computational representations will usher in enormous changes in how and what we learn, in the same manner as the move to print literacy.

Wilensky demonstrated the enormous improvement in arithmetic skills brought about by the adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals. “Before it was adopted, only a few skilled people could perform division,” he said. “Afterwards, it became something we expect every elementary school student to learn."

The Role of Agency

Several speakers focused on how to help students use computer science to help students become active participants rather than passive learners in their educational experience, communities, and careers.

Tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) can broaden the idea of education and keep people engaged and interested – the number one problem facing educators, said Kolodner, visiting professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.

“What if we add new pedagogies that allow more agency and technologies that make phenomena more accessible and vivid?” she asked. “Too much of AI and education assumes that only cognitive aspects of learning need to be addressed. People have to find meaning. People have to feel like they can accomplish something.”

MIT’s Abelson wants to help students imagine themselves as intellectual agents who can change the world through “computational action.” Abelson created App Inventor, an easy-to-use software platform that allows even young people to develop applications to help themselves and their communities. A group of girls in India, for example, developed an app to schedule time at the community water distribution site. An app developed by high school students in Moldova tracks the quality of water in local wells.

“Even children, even young teenagers in the poorest communities, can create apps to improve the lives for people around them,” he said.

Increasing Inclusivity

The University of Oregon’s Joanna Goode explored what it means to broaden participation in computing, which has traditionally been taught in spaces designed for a homogenous group of learners, mostly white, middle-class boys and men. Early efforts to “reform” K-12 computer science education to generate higher rates of participation among students of color and girls in high school classrooms fell short of goals, she said.

But then Goode created Exploring Computer Science, a year-long course designed with culturally responsive curriculum and long-term professional development to help teachers intentionally focus on race, gender and computer science.

For the last decade, Chicago Public Schools has used the course to satisfy the district-wide computer science graduation requirement; it's also being scaled across the nation.

“Conversations, curriculum, and professional development around broadening participation in computing, must include race-conscious and gender-conscious discourse or will likely reinforce the same inequities and privileges that has segregated the field for decades,” she said.   

At the same time, it is important to create computer science experiences for all types of learners, said SESP’s Marcelo Worsley, since 22 percent of the US population identifies as having a disability.

Worlsey, assistant professor of learning sciences and computer science, and his students develop projects like Tangicraft, a multimodal interface designed to allow 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.

In addition to Wilensky, Sherin, and Worsley, School of Education and Social Policy faculty members at theHorn_gorson_wilensky conference included Eleanor O’Rourke, assistant professor of computer science and learning sciences. Nichole Pinkard, associate professor of learning sciences, and Michael Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science.

Jamie Gorson, one of the first students to enroll in the joint Computer Science and Learning Sciences PhD program, won the best poster award for her research looking at whether the growth mindset, or the belief that intelligence grows with effort, can help diversify the field of computer science and stem the high dropout rate in undergraduate programs.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 5/23/19