Assaf, Justice land NSF award grant for cross-disciplinary computer science education research

Featured Faculty 

Jayme Blaschke | July 10, 2020

lori and Sean headshot
Dr. Lori Assaf (left) & Dr. Sean Justice (right)

Lori Assaf, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Sean Justice, an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design at Texas State University, have received a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant to improve the computer thinking skills of early elementary teachers.

The three-year grant from the NSF Division of Research on Learning will support “Exploring PreK-2 Teachers’ Abilities to Identify CT Precursors and Implement Learning Activities that Strengthen Computer Science in Early Childhood Classrooms,” a cross-disciplinary research collaboration between an art educator (Justice, the principal investigator) and a literacy teacher educator (Assaf, the co-principal investigator). 

The project will design a model for PK-2 teacher professional development in the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District (SMCISD) that emphasizes three aspects of teacher learning: a) exploration of and reflection on computer science and computational thinking skills and practices, b) noticing and naming computer science precursor skills and practices in early childhood learning, and c) collaborative design, implementation and assessment of learning activities aligned with standards across content areas. 

“It is important to position teachers first as learners," Assaf said. "This will make teachers more aware of the early steps of computational thinking and allow us to build relationships with teachers and learn from their experiences.”

The project addresses the fact that strengthening computer science education is a national priority, yet computer science education lacks the evidence to determine how teachers come to think about computational thinking (a problem-solving process) and integrate it within their day-to-day classroom activities. Assaf and Justice's research will explore PK-2 teachers' abilities to design and implement culturally relevant computer science learning activities for young children. The project includes a two-week Computational Making and Inquiry Institute focused on algorithms and data in the context of citizen science and historical storytelling, where teachers explore and acquire computational thinking skills. The project also includes monthly classroom coaching sessions and teacher meetups, where teachers learn to notice children's nascent computational thinking and collectively design lesson plans that tap into those skills.

“Computation is not foreign to early learning experiences. Computer science education is not exclusively a subset of math education but can be thought of more broadly as one of several literacies young children acquire in the process of play,” Justice said. “There is a lack of diversity in computer science education – all students should have access to computational learning opportunities.”

The research will include two cohorts of 15 PK-2 teachers recruited from SMCISD in years one and two of the project. The project incorporates a three-phase professional development program to be run in two cycles for each cohort of teachers. Phase one (summer) includes the Computational Making and Inquiry Institute, while phase two (school year) includes classroom observations and teacher meetups and phase three (late spring) includes an advanced computational thinking institute and a community education conference. Research and data collection on impacts will follow a mixed-methods approach to document teachers' learning. The mixed-methods approach will enable researchers to triangulate participants' acquisition of new knowledge and skills with their developing abilities to implement learning activities in classrooms.

For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922