CT-STEM Helps Teachers Reimagine Curriculum

CT-STEM Helps Teachers Reimagine Curriculum

CT-STEM Real scientists generally don’t collect data by hand and crunch numbers using a calculator. So when Teresa Granito teaches biology at Evanston Township High School in the fall, she’ll introduce her students to some of the same computer modeling tools used by the pros.

Granito was one of nearly a dozen educators learning these 21st-century skills through Northwestern University’s free, four-week Computational Thinking in STEM summer institute, which was designed to help teachers integrate computational thinking into their classrooms.

Part of the CT-STEM program, the workshop offered structured brainstorming and coaching related to computational thinking to help educators develop and enhance lesson plans. Teachers partnered with Northwestern’s CT-STEM team, which includes learning scientists, computer scientists, educators, and curriculum developers.

The CT-STEM project, led by School of Education and Social Policy professors Uri Wilensky and Michael Horn, builds on a decade of work with high school science teachers. In the past, teachers worked with Northwestern to design and implement “computational thinking-infused units for science classrooms,” said Wilensky, Lorraine H. Morton Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science.

Now the partnership is “truly 50-50, with the Northwestern team using computational tools to help teachers make units they already teach more powerful and engaging,” Wilensky said. 

The CT-STEM website, meanwhile, gives teachers access to research-backed browser-friendly lesson plans for the classroom in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, math and environmental science, along with a set of tools to easily manage, review and provide feedback to students on CT assignments.

“It’s not about ‘bestowing wisdom’ on teachers,” said Horn, associate professor of computer science and learning sciences. “We partner with teachers to figure out how to fuse what they’re working on with computational thinking.”

What is Computational Thinking, Anyway?
Computational thinking frames problems in a way that computers can help solve. Because computers are changing how people think and learn, it’s more important than ever for students to understand how to use it, Horn said.

“Every scientific discipline – biology, chemistry, physics -- heavily uses computational methods and tools,” Horn said. “You need coding to deal with large and small amounts of data. We’re trying to bring high school science in line with real science and bring it alive.”

Since 2012, more than 50 educators have gone through the program. ETHS statistics teacher Jake Mills said he signed up this summer to learn how to give his students skills they’d actually use on the job and to learn new ways of analyzing large data sets.

Mills partnered with Jacoya Thompson, a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. After Thompson reviewed his curriculum, the two brainstormed ways to incorporate computational thinking into the class.

And when the new seven-day unit they created is incorporated into the class in mid-September, Thompson will be there to make sure everything works smoothly.

“I was giving students engaging content but wasn’t giving them the tools actual data scientists use in the real world.” Mills said. “I want them to look back and say, ‘the stuff I learned in AP stats is what I need in my career now.’ Not, ‘why did we have those graphing calculators?’”

Granito, who has been working with doctoral student and educational designer Sugat Dabholkar for three years, chose to ‘CTify’ the experimental design unit that she has been teaching in her Advanced Placement Biology class. In the past, her students collected pill bugs -- crustaceans commonly known as rolly-pollies -- designed and conducted experiments with them and used statistical methods for hypothesis testing.

Dabholkar and Granito developed a series of computationally-enriched lessons about experimental design and animal behavior. This year, in addition to the experiments with the real rolly-pollies, Granito’s students will first use a computational model, modify an existing model and then construct a computational model of rolly-polly animal behavior.

Students will use Wilensky’s NetLogo computational modeling environments and also the NetTango, Horn and Wilensky’s blocks-based interface to NetLogo.

Over the last three years, Granito has grown significantly more involved. During the first year, Granito taught a pre-built unit shared by Northwestern educators. Last year she and Dabholkar had several meetings before she taught her unit.

“I shared my curriculum and PowerPoint notes and he came back with the models and a complete, seamless unit,” Granito said. “It was like magic.”

Granito joined the 2019 summer institute to co-design a completely new unit. Granito and Dabholkar brainstormed together to come up with one of Granito's previous curricular units to be 'CTified'. They co-designed computational models and CT activities embedded in six CT-STEM lessons.

In addition to Granito and Mills, teachers who participated in the summer workshop included Neil Schmidgall of Glenbrook South High School; Lauren Bauknecht of Carl Schurz High School; Lauren Levites and Carole Namowicz of Lindblom Math and Science Academy; Dan Dubrow, Emily Habbert of Evanston Township High School, and Jon Emery of Northwestern University.

Wilensky and Horn, the project’s lead investigators, also co-direct the joint PhD program in Computer Science and Learning Sciences.

The team also includes Hillary Swanson, research assistant professor; Mandy Peel, postdoctoral fellow; Sally Wu, director of curriculum development; graduate research assistants Gabby Anton, Umit Aslan, Connor Bain, Sugat Dabholkar, Jacob Kelter, Jacoya Thompson; Jeremy Baker, developer of modeling software, Sachin Pradhan, website developer; undergraduate intern Carrie Douglas; and several teacher partners.

Kevin Hall, former director of curriculum development, and Golnaz Arastoopour Irgens, former postdoctoral fellow and current assistant professor at Clemson University contributed to the design of CT-STEM summer institute.   

The CT-STEM work is being made possible through generous support from the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 8/21/19