Computational Thinking Course Helps Teachers Bring High Level Thinking Skills into Their Classrooms

Online, Professional Development Course Is Designed for High School Math and Science Teachers

Just how do you solve a complex problem involving reams of data that admits no simple answer?

This is the challenge that groups of high school teachers in several states are tackling as participants in a new professional development course designed to teach them—and ultimately their students—computational thinking skills.

The online course was developed by the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS) at Rutgers University in partnership with the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. The project is supported with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

After attending a one-day, in-person workshop, teachers complete 4-6 weeks of online instruction. Next they apply what they have learned to a week of lessons and instruction for their high school students. The course is free of charge to teachers accepted into the program.

Learn more about computational thinking

A pilot course was held in the spring, launched with a workshop at Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri. This was followed by summer courses for high school math and science teachers in Pittstown, PA and Oklahoma City, OK, as well as an academic-year course in Helena, MT. Future courses in other locations will be held in 2020 and 2021.

Two of the project leaders, Rutgers University Professor Midge Cozzens and Cottey College Professor Kristi Adams, recently presented findings from the pilot course to computational thinking experts at an American Association of Physics Teachers Computational Thinking conference.

In their presentation, they highlighted the program’s early successes and some “surprise findings”.

Group photo of teachers and pre-service students who completed the computational thinking pilot course at Cottey College.

Participants in the computational-thinking pilot course held at Cottey College in Nevada, MO, marked their graduation with this group photo. Each received a certificate of professional development.

Computational thinking is an ordered way of thinking that enables users to solve complex problems.

“We told the NSF this was going to be a grand experiment,” said Professor Cozzens, who is also associate director for education at DIMACS at Rutgers. “I feel amazed that the grant just started September 15 (2018), and now we already have proof it can be successful in different parts of the country. We continue to prove that there’s a market for it with 182 applications in Oklahoma for 25 slots.”

Essentially, computational thinking is a disciplined and ordered way of thinking that enables users to solve complex problems – with or without the aid of a computer. Step-by-step solutions that emerge from this thought process are called algorithms.

“Computational thinking is a process of engaging real-world data for future applications,” explained Adams, who is director of education-preparation programs at Cottey.

Unlike the regular courses, the Cottey College pilot course was open to teachers of students of all ages and of many different subjects.

Among the findings:  How quickly and enthusiastically teachers were able to incorporate computational thinking strategies into lessons for every age group and across diverse subject matters.

Although the course modules are designed for instruction in high school math and science, pilot course participants adapted what they learned for applications in elementary school, special education, theatre, French, literature and even library science.

Computational thinking starts with a problem to be solved: How do you decide who should get an available heart transplant?

Library science, really?

The problem: Not all students are readers. How can we get them to read?

Adams cited the example of a librarian who, after taking the course, worked with students to create an algorithm to help them find books in their areas of interest. With this information, she was able to identify the top ten books any student might want to read.

“A lot of kids don’t like going into the library because they don’t know what they want to read,” Adams explained. “If the librarian can get the right book into their hands within ten minutes, they will read it!”

Problem solved.

Citing another example from the pilot course, a couple of English teachers worked with students to create an algorithm designed to predict potential future winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature based on an analysis of the writings of past winners. The students’ task, based on this algorithm, was to rank other writers for their likelihood of winning.

“It was a very mathematical way of looking at literature,” Adams said. “Students pay more attention to the text (the writings of potential future winners) because they will have to rank them.”

A diverse, cross-disciplinary group of secondary school teachers and pre-service teachers (students at Cottey College) participated in the pilot. Among the findings was the enormous support that the practicing teachers offered to their pre-service colleagues whose classroom experience was limited. This support spurred vigorous online discussions.

The online courses offered by the program consist of ten units or modules: privacy, electric cars, network capacity, heart transplants, DNA sequencing and sorting, recurrences, tomography, cryptography, video streaming, and weather data generators.

The formal name of the program is Teacher Professional Development for Embedding Computational Thinking in Mathematics and Science High School Classes.

Cozzens grand plan at the conclusion of the three-year project is to make the instructional modules available to all teachers everywhere.

As for Adams, she was so impressed by the impact of the pilot course on 11 of her pre-service students at Cottey College that she would like to incorporate computational thinking into the regular education-preparation program she directs at the college.

“My students (vastly) enriched their knowledge,” Adams said. “It was amazing to see their growth!”

The concept of computational thinking was first described in 2006 by Professor Jeannette M. Wing, then head of the computer department at Carnegie Mellon University.  In her seminal paper on the concept, she described it as a way of “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science.”

Adams said a single, agreed-upon operational definition of the concept still eludes top thinkers in the field. In fact, an effort to agree on one definition eluded 20 computational-thinking experts from around the world at the physics conference where Adams was a presenter.

“It’s more about a thought process than anything else,” she said. “There are those who say you can’t do computational thinking without a computer, but isn’t the brain a computer? We’ve probably been doing computational thinking since the beginning of time.”

Four cornerstones of the computational thinking process are modeling, decomposition, abstraction and measurement. Source: Presentation to the American Association of Physics Teachers by Midge Cozzens and Kristi Adams.

Four cornerstones of the computational thinking process are modeling, decomposition, abstraction and measurement. Source: Presentation to the American Association of Physics Teachers by Midge Cozzens and Kristi Adams.

Computational Thinking Process: Formulate problems, organize and analyze data, represent data through abstractions, identify possible solutions, generalize the process to solve other problems.

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