Graduate Instructor & Research Assistant
College of Education, University of Maryland College Park. Researcher with Maryland Center for Computing Education.
How did you get into CS?
My junior high school and high school experiences shaped my formative interest in computation. I gravitated towards the personal computer in middle school when the school librarian (Mrs. Goldberg at (formerly known as) Oakview Jr High in Skokie, IL) set up a single machine in the library: an Apple (…..yes I am dating myself) back in 1979. There weren’t any restrictions for its use, nor did she specify any particular purpose; it was up to the student to learn what they wanted using the machine. Reflecting now, it was a brilliant move on her part. I learned by trial and pivoting (I am not a fan of the word failure). I would label her approach as a learner-centered emergent curriculum. I was smitten with the machine. It was love at first byte!!! Luckily for me, there weren’t too many students who signed up to use it!! I came in early before school, begged to stay inside during lunch time, and stayed after school. The school had not purchased any software yet, so I learned how to program in BASIC, which was built into the OS. Learning BASIC was very similar to learning Scratch for the first time, without the blocks. Eventually, I befriended a group of likeminded students (think “nerds” and “gamers”) and learned from them as well. I was an introvert, shy and probably on “the spectrum”, traits and assets that I leveraged to learn BASIC programming on my own terms. I went to a privileged high school (Niles North HS, District 219) which offered basic and advanced CS classes (all taught by Math teachers). We programmed in Pascal and saved our work on 5 ¼ floppy disks!! Verbatim was my preferred brand. I even had a hard plastic box that held 10 disks. I had pirated games on these disks which we would play in the computer lab, driving the lab monitor NUTS!! Yes, I ended up in detention more than a few times (to the chagrin of my rule-following South Indian parents). I took all the CS courses that were offered by the end of my junior year and was part of the cohort that took the first AP CS exam in 1984 (such an ominous, Orwellian year!!). I was enamored of computer games and wanted to create my own. I especially loved the aesthetics and mechanics of the games (this was early 80s when arcade games were available on the Apple; think Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaxian), which appealed to the affective part of my brain. I learned that these games were written in Assembly language, so I attempted to learn the language on my own (for the 6502 processor, by reading magazines and books like Assembly Language Programming for The Apple 2 by Robert Mottola). I gave up after about two months, having concluded that I was not cut out to program in Assembly. What I learned from my HS experience was that there are fun and engaging alternative ways to learn and achieve computational competency. I never fully embraced the CS curriculum in high school because we worked on inauthentic problems, rather than solving something authentic or creating something fun or of value. Support from peers and feedback from teachers allowed me to navigate the learning path, but the explicit CS curriculum did not benefit students like me.
What are some successes and challenges you have experienced in getting to where you are now?
I was a tinkerer by nature and a seeker of novelty from an early age. I learned (and still learn) best through long, iterative cycles of trial and pivoting, which unfortunately created friction in the classroom. I was not a “good” student; I did not like schooling, but loved learning. I was one of those students who learned “differently”, a slow learner, pivoting over longer horizons but eventually connecting the dots and achieving conceptual understanding. Anecdotally, I loved computational literacy because it allowed me to view the world based on my experiences, beliefs, values, mindset, and outlook. I could frame the questions/problems and pursue a course of learning on my terms, thinking through solutions without using formal theories from the canon. I learned by following my intuition, and computation offered the right learner engagement fit- limited only by my imagination and hardware attributes. My experience with learning, schooling, and computing influenced my decision on the type of teacher and researcher I wanted to be. When I switched to teaching (Math, Science, & CS), I adopted a method that was highly student-centric, self-directed, and interest-based (authentic learning). I worked with minoritized and marginalized populations during my student teaching and adopted a critical view of computational literacy. I would encourage my students to resist accepting the dominant narrative, norms, and arbitrary rules (all of which were present in the school) and develop a world view of computation based on their experiences. For example, I taught computational literacy incorporating hacker pedagogy, unschooling principles, and non-dominant ways of learning and knowing. I found that students who were labeled as “failures” but did not need an IEP responded to this type of approach and thrived; they wanted to learn but didn’t like schooling. My research encompasses using computational literacy (which is defined broadly and subsumes computational thinking and computer science) as an intervention for reluctant schoolers. As a technology optimist, I view computational literacy as a platform: a holistic, integrated (humanities/STEM/social science) learning approach that allows young learners to flourish and create authentic social value. For example, I am investigating the use of generative AI (think text, art, music) as an intervention to motivate and to engage reluctant schoolers and to address unrealized learning (aka “learning loss”) during the time of Covid 19 online learning. Our world is getting more complex and our young students will have to face its numerous challenges as adults. We need to equip young people with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and mental models of the world to frame problems, analyze options, develop prototypes, and implement scalable solutions. A computational literacy-based learning platform has the potential to support and develop these qualities and skill sets. As educators and leaders, we need to simultaneously hold the dichotomous ideas of schooling (for administrative purposes) and learning (for student flourishing). I am convinced that computational literacy can cultivate a love for learning and provide an alternative path towards the meaningful actualization of students’ potential.
What’s going well for you now? What are you looking forward to?
As a pracademic (practitioner AND academic) I am looking forward to learning, understanding, and working with PreK teachers and instructors who incorporate computational thinking (CT) and computational literacies (CL) into their pedagogy and curriculum. Specifically, I am interested in the role of CT and CL in the development of important noncognitive skills (such as creativity and self-directed learning), specifically social preference (altruism, unselfishness, sharing, caring for others, etc.) in 3- and 4-year-olds. Emerging research shows that students from marginalized and minority populations benefit most from developing their noncognitive skills early. Can the introduction of CL and CT “supercharge” and sustain the development of noncognitive skills of some of the most vulnerable young learners? Will this lead to higher learning outcomes throughout K-12? This area is under-researched and I look forward to supporting teachers in Maryland and working with MCCE to disseminate any descriptive and causal findings.