Jen Radoff, PhD
Physics Education Research Group
University of Maryland, College Park
How did you get into CS?
I first got involved in Computational Thinking research through an NSF-funded project I worked on as a postdoctoral scholar at UMD-CP called, Research on Practice Using STEM Inquiry Embedded with Computational Thinking in Elementary School. In this project, we provided professional development for elementary math and science teachers in PG County to build opportunities for unplugged computational thinking into the (new at the time) NGSS curricula the county provided them. Since then, I have worked on a number of other CT-related research projects as a Principal Investigator, including Partnering with Teachers on the Design of Inquiry for Socio-scientific Computational Thinking, where we partnered with elementary teachers (in contrast to more traditional models of providing PD for teachers) to develop computationally-rich socioscientific and sociopolitical inquiry modules for students and other teachers. Most recently, my colleague Amy Green and I have been working with a group of expert teachers and county stakeholders to develop principles for modifying existing STEM curricula to include more sustainability content leveraging CS/CT tools and practices in a project called C-STEM for sustainability: Preparing elementary-school teachers to integrate computer science into linguistically inclusive, transdisciplinary STEM instruction.
It has been incredibly helpful that the NSF has CS/CT-education-specific funding lines. Without these funding lines, I doubt I would have been able to continue my work in this field, given that my position (Assistant Research Professor) is fully grant-supported. The reason I have continued to pursue CT/CS education in my work is that I find there to be many rich possibilities for interdisciplinary connections: CS/CT can enhance science inquiry and science inquiry can serve as a rich playground for learning CS/CT.
What are some successes and challenges you have experienced along the way?
One challenge that I am sure many others face is the sheer lack of time teachers have to include things like CS in their already busy day. One of the reasons we choose to focus on integrating CS/CT into the science curriculum is that we wanted teachers to see that including CS/CT in their lessons can help them accomplish some of the goals they already have for their students, and provide avenues for students' creative self-expression and skill-building. However, there are many challenges to integration as well, including that curricular innovations that exist to teach CS and CT are often used in ways that are decontextualized from the science inquiry, and a lot of effort is required to make those connections. In our current project, we are hoping to develop scaffolds that enable and empower teachers to create their own curricular innovations that integrate science inquiry and CS/CT in meaningful ways.
Do you have advice, suggestions, or resources you would like to share with people who are teaching or learning CS?
My advice, especially for folks who are interested in CS/CT-science integration (researchers, curriculum developers, teachers, etc.), would be to make sure that CS/CT activities are not just being used to check a box; they should be purposeful, useful, and meaningful to students. I'd like to encourage folks to ask critical questions about whether the CS/CT and science inquiry are really enhancing one another and whether they are supporting students in their attempts to understand the physical and social worlds around them. Leveraging computational tools and practices in educational settings can be incredibly powerful and empowering, not only for students, but for teachers. These tools and practices can enable us to make sense of complex phenomena, prompt us to ask questions we may not have considered, and help us see the world differently. In this vein, I would encourage folks to think expansively and creatively about what responsible use of technology can make possible.