CAREER: Blocks, Stickers, and Puzzles: Rethinking Computational Literacy Experiences in Informal Environments

June 1st, 2015 - May 31st, 2020 | PROJECT

A recent report by the Association for Computing Machinery estimates that by decade's end, half of all STEM jobs in the United States will be in computing. Yet, the participation of women and underrepresented groups in post-secondary computer science programs remains discouragingly and persistently low. One of the most important findings from research in computer science education is the degree to which informal experiences with computers (at many ages and in many settings) shape young people's trajectories through high school and into undergraduate degree programs. Just as early language and mathematics literacy begins at home and is reinforced throughout childhood through a variety of experiences both in school and out, for reasons of diversity and competency, formal experiences with computational literacy alone are insufficient for developing the next generation of scientists, engineers, and citizens. Thus, this CAREER program of research seeks to contribute to a conceptual and design framework to rethink computational literacy in informal environments in an effort to engage a broad and diverse audience. It builds on the concept of cultural forms to understand existing computational literacy practices across a variety of learning settings and to contribute innovative technology designs. As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds new approaches to and evidence-based understanding of the design and development of STEM learning in these settings. This CAREER program of research seeks to understand the role of cultural forms in informal computational learning experiences and to develop a theoretically grounded approach for designing such experiences for youth. This work starts from the premise that new forms of computational literacy will be born from existing cultural forms of literacy and numeracy (i.e., for mathematical literacy there are forms like counting songs -- "10 little ducks went out to play"). Many of these forms play out in homes between parents and children, in schools between teachers and students, and in all sorts of other place between friends and siblings. This program of study is a three-phased design and development effort focused on key research questions that include understanding (1) how cultural forms can help shape audience experiences in informal learning environments; (2) how different cultural forms interact with youth's identity-related needs and motivations; and (3) how new types of computational literacy experiences based on these forms can be created. Each phase includes inductive research that attempts to understand computational literacy as it exists in the world and a design phase guided by concrete learning objectives that address specific aspects of computational literacy. Data collection strategies will include naturalist observation, semi-structured, and in-depth interviews, and learning assessments; outcome measures will center on voluntary engagement, motivation, and persistence around the learning experiences. The contexts for research and design will be museums, homes, and afterschool programs. This research builds on a decade of experience by the PI in designing and studying computational literacy experiences across a range of learning settings including museums, homes, out-of-school programs, and classrooms. Engaging a broad and diverse audience in the future of STEM computing fields is an urgent priority of the US education system, both in schools and beyond. This project would complement substantial existing efforts to promote in-school computational literacy and, if successful, help bring about a more representative, computationally empowered citizenry. The integrated education plan supports the training and mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students in emerging research methods at the intersection of the learning sciences, computer science, and human-computer interaction. This work will also develop publically available learning experiences potentially impacting thousands of youth. These experiences will be available in museums, on the Web, and through App stores.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Team Members

Michael Horn, Principal Investigator, Northwestern University


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL
Award Number: 1451762
Funding Amount: 130740


Audience: Educators | Teachers | Elementary School Children (6-10) | General Public | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists | Undergraduate | Graduate Students | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: Computing and information science | Literacy | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Afterschool Programs | Higher Education Programs | Informal | Formal Connections | Media and Technology | Museum and Science Center Programs | Public Programs | Websites | Mobile Apps | Online Media