INTRODUCING COMPUTATIONAL THINKING TO 7TH AND 8TH GRADERS

S. Iyengar

Winona State University (UNITED STATES)
The millennial students registering at the university are skilled at using technology for entertainment and fact finding. But, the necessary curiosity to know the workings of the technology and the ability to utilize it productively seem to be lacking. Mentoring at high-school presents the same dilemma. The foundations needed to investigate, explore, and develop problem-solving with computation is seen missing.

This project was an attempt to jumpstart this process by introducing fundamentals of computation and problem solving using computers to students prior to entering high-school. Additionally, pedagogical techniques taught and used by middle school teachers were used to create activities and sustain interest. In particular the constructionist approach by John Biggs [1] was adopted together with the ideas in “Self Theories” [2] professed by Carol Dweck.

The curriculum was developed incrementally - in conjunction with the pedagogical techniques learned through the graduate level Middle School Education course. The course comprised fifteen (15) one hour sessions, once per week. The course was delivered using a combination of videos and reflective discussion, current events and relevant articles, short quizzes, demonstration of programming tools and techniques developed for the class, team projects, active classroom participation, and student presentation. The class comprised of 14 7th and 8th graders; with 8 girls and 6 boys; three teachers and one university professor and an MS student.

Various pedagogical techniques learned in the classroom – Selective Readings and Teaching Strategies for Middle School Children – were used to keep student attention, group formations, discussions moderation, and assignment creation.

All activities were conducted as a team project or classroom activity. First set of activities involved making the class relevant to student interest and understanding the relevance of technology to all aspects of society. Subsequently, using the Java language and the JEdit interface, students were introduced to computational problem solving first - where the code resembles the output and then code that needs to be interpreted to ensure expected output is achieved.

Students learned core values needed to work on computational problem solving. This include soft and hard skills. The curriculum was developed on the go based on student feedback and hence was quite different than originally envisioned. But this is precisely the constructionist approach and thus was most effective from the students’ point of view. Students also learned the need and use of soft skills and skills from various disciplines to creatively deliver useful products and technologies.

A surprising side-effect was that the school teachers participating in the project got motivated and interested in computing. The participating teachers - science and social studies teachers - were motivated to learn software development and participated extensively in the process. We thus achieved in-service teacher training. This may be the better approach to teacher training.