These Teachers Added Computational Thinking to Their Classes

These Teachers Added Computational Thinking to Their Classes

Lauren on YouTubeLauren Levites of Lindblom Math and Science Academy participated for the second year in a row.

Sue Juhl is a longtime Chicago Public Schools special education and biology teacher with a self-described “unhealthy fear of computers and any kind of programming.”

But after spending just four weeks in Northwestern University’s Computational Thinking in STEM Summer Institute, Juhl unveiled a timely and relevant new curriculum that combines computer models, data, and algorithms with social emotional learning to help students recognize and mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

“You can actually take data they’re reporting on the news, plug it into the model we developed, and use computational thinking to help them visualize and really grasp what’s happening,” Juhl said. 

Juhl was one of eleven educators who learned how to incorporate newfound computational tools and skills into her curriculum through Northwestern University’s free, four-week professorional development series.

Part of the Computational Thinking in STEM (CT-STEM) program, the workshop brings teachers together with Northwestern’s CT-STEM team, which includes learning scientists, computer scientists, educators, and curriculum developers.

The teams brainstorm and ultimately, co-create curricular units that teachers can use in the coming school year. Even after the four-week professional development ends, the Northwestern team supports the teacher in the classroom and online. All the co-designed units are then reviewed by curriculum experts and made available for public use on the CT-STEM website.

The CT-STEM website offers teachers research-backed browser-friendly curricular units and lessons 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. Teachers can create their own accounts and customize the units for classroom use.

“Whatever I brought in for the unit was transformed through working with Northwestern in a way that I think is going to be a lot more accessible and a lot more engaging my students,” said Dan Stone of CPS’s Lane Tech College Prep, who created “Civic Actions in Computer Science,” a class that combines social sciences and data analysis and is geared toward those who aren’t necessarily pursuing a STEM career.

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.

This year, the teachers showcased their new classes in a virtual poster session/symposium format, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors watched videos and chatted via Zoom to learn about this year's newest classes.

“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,” said Uri Wilensky, Lorraine H. Morton Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science, who created NetLogo, a programmable modeling environment used by hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and researchers around the world.

“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 70 educators have gone through the program. “CT-STEM gives teachers the chance to take what's happening in the world and develop something around it to draw big picture connections,” said Lauren Levites of Lindblom Math and Science Academy.

Last year Levites and the CT-STEM team developed a unit about climate change in the Great Lakes. “Students are collecting and analyzing data, making claims and writing explanations,” she said. “They love being able to manipulate the models.”

Simulations and models also help students who are only interested in getting a right answer or an “A” grade, Levites said. “It forces them to try and figure things out and helps train them away from some of those behaviors,” she said.

Students use Wilensky’s NetLogo computational modeling environments, and NetTango, Horn and Wilensky’s blocks-based interface to NetLogo to explore an array of questions, including how disease spreads, how lines move at a grocery store, and how quickly forest fires burn.

"NetLogo gives students visual and cognitive access to think about a phenomenon in terms of interacting agents, giving them properties and rules that control their behaviors," Wilensky said. "The user can run the simulations to investigate and learn about complex and emergent properties of the system as it changes over time."

Juhl and her co-design partner modified a NetLogo model to create a COVID-19 pandemic simulation that lets students control how many people had been infected and how many were symptom-free. The modeling shows how the virus spreads when the parameters regarding infectiousness of the virus and people behavior are changed.

zoom group“You can see what happens to the virus when you put masks on,” she said. “You can see how it changes when you use masks and make people social distance. Or you can just have them social distance and see what the effects are.”

Juhl partnered with Karen Johnson of Evanston Township High School; learning sciences graduate student assistant Sugat Dabholkar, who has been part of the CT-STEM team for four years and SESP undergraduate research assistant Jordan Brick.

“What I like most about Sue’s topic is that she focused on making it a good social, emotional learning experience for students,” Dabholkar said. “It’s very well designed for students to use their prior knowledge and personal experiences about the pandemic. They can then use a computational model to learn about disease spread and prevention strategies."

Juhl interviewed someone who had been diagnosed with COVID and used the video as an “anchoring phenomena,” or a real-life situation that helps students form questions and connections. Computational tools and learning activities are designed for students to investigate that story throughout the unit.

The curriculum, which was designed for special education and English Language Learners, can be used for sixth graders through high school sophomores. It includes seven lessons, including the video storyline and supports are built into the lessons.

“COVID-19 is more than just a scientific phenomenon,” Juhl said. “It is also a social, financial and emotional one. So we built this into the model to personalize it and help kids discuss it.”

Other  teacher participants in the summer workshop included Carole Namowicz and Katie Lindeman of Lindblom Math and Science Academy; Jake Mills, John Mickelson, and Steve Dickman of Evanston Township High School; Mitch Arsenie and Syed Qadri of Schurz High School.

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

The Northwestern team includes Mandy Peel, postdoctoral fellow; Sally Wu, director of curriculum development; graduate research assistants Gabby Anton, Umit Aslan, Connor Bain, Sugat DabholkarJacob Kelter, Leif Rasmussen; undergraduate research assistants Delan Hao, Jamie Lee, Jordan Brick, Julianna Mendoza, Kelvin Lao, Marissa Levy and Susan Tran.

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: 9/4/20