Team, Visitors, External Collaborators
Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
Highlights of the Year
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Bilateral Contracts and Grants with Industry
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: New Results

Computer Science Education

Participants : Michael Lodi, Simone Martini.

We study why and how to teach computer science principles (nowadays often referred to as “computational thinking”, CT), in the context of K-12 education. We are interested in philosophical, sociological, and historical motivations to teach computer science. Furthermore, we study what concepts and skills related to computer science are not only technical abilities, but have a general value for all students. Finally, we try to find/produce/evaluate suitable materials (tools, languages, lesson plans...) to teach these concepts, taking into account: difficulties in learning CS concepts (particularly programming); stereotypes about computer science (teachers' and students' mindset); teacher training (both non-specialist and disciplinary teachers); innovative teaching methodologies (primarily based on constructivist and constructionist learning theories).

Computational Thinking, Unplugged Activities, and Constructionism

We reviewed some relevant literature related to learning CS and, more specifically, programming in a constructivist and constructionist light. We investigated some cognitive aspects, for example, the notional machine and its role in understanding, misunderstanding, and difficulties of learning to program. We reviewed programming languages for learning to program, with particular focus on educational characteristics of block-based languages [24].

We analyzed the widespread but debated pedagogical approach of “unplugged activities”: activities without a computer, like physical games, used to teach CS concepts. We explicitly connect computational thinking to the “CS Unplugged” pedagogical approach, by analyzing a representative sample of CS Unplugged activities in light of CT. We found the activities map well onto commonly accepted CT concepts, although caution must be taken not to regard CS Unplugged as being a complete approach to CT education [14].

Moreover, we found similarities (e.g., kinesthetic activities) and differences (e.g., structured vs. creative activities) between Unplugged and constructivism or constructionism. We argue there is a tension between the constructivist need to link the CS concepts to actual implementations and the challenge of teaching CS principles without computers, to undermine the misconceptions of CS as “the science of computers” [13].

CS in Primary School

We designed, produced and implemented in a primary school some “unplugged + plugged” teaching materials and lesson plans [47]. The unplugged activities are structured as an incremental discovery, scaffolded by the instructors, of the fundamental concepts of structured programming (e.g., sequence, conditionals, loops, variables) but also complexity in terms of computational steps and generalization of algorithms. The plugged activities follow the creative learning approach, using Scratch as the primary tool, both for free creative expression and for learning other disciplines (e.g., drawing regular polygons).

Growth Mindset and Transfer

Every person holds an idea (mindset) about intelligence: someone thinks it is a fixed trait, like eye colour (fixed mindset), while others believe it can grow like muscles (growth mindset). The latter is beneficial for students to have better results, particularly in STEM disciplines, and to not being influenced by stereotypes. Computer science is a subject that can be affected by fixed ideas (“geek gene”), and some (small) studies showed it can induce fixed ideas. By contrast, some claims stating that studying CS can foster a GM have emerged. However, educational research shows that the transfer of competences is hard. We measured [40] some indicators (e.g., mindset, computer science mindset) at the beginning and the end of a high school year in different classes, both CS and non-CS oriented. At the end of the year, none of the classes showed a statistically significant change in their mindset. Interestingly, non-CS oriented classes showed a significant decrease in their computer science growth mindset, which is not desirable.