Feb 29, 2012

500 Word Statement //Updated

(It’s a tad longer than 500, but I’m having trouble narrowing it to a happy medium between 250 and 500. The word battle rages on…)

BOXES (Building Open Expandable Electronic Systems) is a workshop that introduces middle and high school educators to an alternative approach to teaching and learning computational thinking. There is an ever increasing demand for more computer science in secondary school classrooms: research has accumulated over the past few years to reveal how underprepared the next generation of learners are to enter a competitive global workforce. Broadly, it means developing an awareness of the world as an interconnected systems. On an individual level, it means preparing learners to develop creative solutions to problems that have yet to be found.

The last ten years has seen an explosion of STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology) based policies intended to remedy these issues. Researchers, however, are identifying the lack of basic computational competencies and interdisciplinary practices as key sources of this problem. Computational thinking has recently emerged as a new domain that attempts to articulate these competencies and apply them to realms as diverse as art, archeology, and literature. It encompasses a set of problem solving skills and approaches derived from proceduralism, algorithmic thinking, abstraction, automation, and more. While these competencies are founded in deeper philosophical roots from centuries past, their current applicability is essential for appreciating and implementing the computer as a creative tool.

Drawing on learning theories grounded in the belief that children learn by actively constructing their world through the creation and manipulation of tangible objects, this thesis targets populations who are generally marginalized by traditional, screen-based pedagogical approaches to learning computational competencies. Specifically, it focuses on middle and high school teachers who lack exposure to engaging, alternative teaching methods and strategies.

Through literature research, observation, informal interviews, and personal experience, I have identified five barriers/points to entry for new, nervous, or disinterested potential learners: cost, materials, pedagogical approach, and practical execution. Generally, context is rarely addressed in introductory computing courses, but it can be a significant factor in reaching populations with different learning modalities. To address this, the workshop emphasizes how softer materials can broaden entry points and also employs on age-specific metaphors and themes to ground learning within a narrative framework. For example, building a box is very different then building a box that can be decorated and thought of as a castle. A close cousin of the scientific method, the iterative design process provides a rich foundation to promote self-guided problem finding and creative expression.

The boxes are constructed from a set of materials chosen specifically for their familiar properties and low cost (under 100USD for a group of 15-17). A paper substrate allows users to trace the path of electricity as it moves through the circuit before building it. Copper tape is an easily manipulated conductor that users apply to their pre-drawn schematic. Participants create their own paper PCB using copper tape and the ATtiny84, a 2 USD microcontroller that can be programmed with the Arduino.

Learners embed their circuits in individual boxes. Alone, they act as paper lamps. Together, they communicate with each other via magnetic switches under different rule sets, creating generative 3 dimensional interactive art forms. BOX makers can recombine their structures to fashion unique environments or pixelated displays. Workshop themes target specific metaphors to apply an added layer of narrative to the experience. Learners can use these boxes to create a stage for storytelling.

Three workshops will be held and evaluated with three different user sets: MFA Design and Technology students, graduate education students, and 7-12th grade teachers. Audience is the only variable; each workshop will be given with the same agenda and using the same materials.

To determine the success of my approach, I am evaluating both the toolkit and the learning that emerges from it. Specifically I will tackle (1) the system as a creative tool, (2) the level of engagement and interest, and (3) the workshop’s efficacy in reframing computational thinking concepts. I will gather data through a written pre-evaluation, personal observation, written post-evaluation, and short video interviews. I will perform qualitative and quantitative data analysis through the following two frameworks.

For the toolkit, I will take a more quantitative approach, using a new system of metrics called the Creativity Support Index. It is designed to evaluate the level of creative support for different systems, interfaces, and other tools. For learning and reframing, I will use the Six Strands of Informal Learning as an assessment framework to develop a qualitative coding scheme that is aligned with the initial data gather in the pre-evaluation. Initial codes might examine language, attitude, process/behaviors, identity, metacognition/reflection, and collaboration.

This research hopes to contribute to a growing movement of educators and designers who are reimagining what circuits and computers can look like and seeks to function as a medium to transform populations of learners and educators into Makers who can find application of their learning above a textbook and beyond a traditional classroom. All supporting content and documentation of individual workshops will live online with the goal of having other educators run similar workshops.

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