Computational thinking

By Megan E. Doherty, AM’05, PhD’10

From web-based research to interactive textbooks, computers and other digital media have become nearly indispensable in education. Students and educators increasingly rely on computers in every academic discipline, and digital technologies have helped expand and redefine the parameters of instruction. Recognizing this trend, several teachers at Lab, working with teams from the University’s Computer Science Department and STEM Education, have inaugurated a Schools-wide program known as the “Computational thinking (CT) Initiative” to foster greater understanding of what computing and digital technologies make possible. 

“The overall goal of the project is to improve computational thinking instruction at all levels at Lab, so that students have a cohesive nursery through grade 12 experience,” says Jeremy Schwartz, Lab’s Computer Science Department chair. “We want to increase the use of computing and computational thinking in classrooms generally, not just during the time students have in computer science classes.” The challenge was how to increase students’ involvement with computation in their homerooms or other classes.
“The big ideas for me,” says Mr. Schwartz, “are that it gives us an opportunity to rethink the curriculum and move it forward with respect to all the developments that are happening. The opportunity for us to keep Lab at the forefront of computer science education, to draw from the depths of knowledge at the University of Chicago at a time when we are going to strategically expand our program, is really exciting. It allows us to incorporate concepts like data science, physical computing, and so many others so that students have deeper and more meaningful exposure to these concepts and developments.”
The project got off the ground when Research Associate Professor Diana Franklin from the University’s Computer Science Department and UChicago STEM Education gave a presentation to Lab’s N–2 teachers last fall. The presentation was designed to help those teachers understand what computational thinking looks like in different age-appropriate, non-computing contexts. “It’s truly revealing when you start to look at it just what qualifies as CT,” Mr. Schwartz noted.

At the N–2 level, the initiative helps teachers identify where computational thinking is already happening—possibly without their realizing it—and to strengthen those activities with explicit connections to CT. Teachers identified picture books and games that lend themselves to the kinds of processes behind CT: problem decomposition, spatial skills, debugging, programming. Robot Turtles—a coding board game designed for preschoolers—was found to be a good opportunity for such thinking. Among the many books identified to contain strong material conducive to CT was Margaret and the Moon by Dean Robbins, the true story of Margaret Hamilton, a NASA engineer who taught herself to write code and program computers at a young age. 

In the Lower School, the CT approach is taking on a more hands-on cast. This year, one third grade classroom will be enhancing the Cardboard Challenge, a widely successful project already existing in the Lower School, to incorporate a more explicit focus on CT. 
Students design and build elaborate objects, such as pinball machines, using recycled materials. To incorporate CT methods and principles, students will learn to integrate digital sensors, LED displays, and buttons. Through CT students can build from previous experience and take a given project a step or two further. Gradation is a key concept throughout the entire spectrum of CT pedagogy.
By Middle School, students are ready for another layer of learning and lessons incorporate concepts like “blockchain,” which is used in crypto-currencies, among other technologies. Students learn by actively simulating a blockchain system, rather than passive instruction. 
“Concepts such as computational trust, de-centralized data storage, encryption, these are what we wanted the kids to learn. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are important contemporary topics, and we wanted to see how we can start teaching students to understand with a hands-on approach, through active simulation,” says Mr. Schwartz.

In the High School, the CT Initiative is focused not only on continued enhancement of the computer science  curriculum but also on exploring, with other teachers, how the ideas from computational thinking can inform problem solving across disciplines.
“We’re working with Professor Franklin and UChicago STEM to evaluate the current course offerings, and asking how can we add new courses that are engaging and relevant for students wanting to take AP computer science, as well as students who might not be as CT savvy.” Mr. Schwartz emphasizes that High School should be where CT as a way of solving problems—clearly and consciously held out as a basic tool for learning—is embraced. The Computer Science and Math departments are partnering to explore how CT can be integrated more fully into math instruction, including using 3D modeling and 3D printing to improve geometry instruction, making learning more engaging and helping students build their tool sets for solving problems in other subjects.
A key part of the initiative is to support Lab teachers in their ongoing effort to improve and augment their teaching materials—both through finding new resources and updating older ones. The mutually beneficial collaboration with the University, serving Lab’s specific program goals at the same time that it draws upon and enhances Professor Franklin’s research, promises wider pedagogical applications for computer science and STEM education in ways that will serve the broader academic community.
Mr. Schwartz emphasizes the vital role of collaboration between Lab and the University: “To have University of Chicago experts provide feedback on our efforts to expand our curriculum in real time, it’s something other schools can only dream of.”

  • Teaching at Lab