Research that helps teachers get with the (computer) program

Don’t worry Virginia teachers, Amy Hutchison feels your pain and is here to help.

The associate professor at George Mason University and director of Mason’s Division of Elementary, Literacy and Secondary Education understands that teaching the new mandatory Standards of Learning for computer science in Virginia’s public schools can seem daunting to those who do not have a computer science background.

That is why Hutchison said it is critical she include teachers in her three-year, $1 million study, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, that is exploring the best ways to train teachers to translate the standards into student outcomes.

“It’s incredibly important,” Hutchison said of bringing teachers into the mix. “They are the ones doing this work. Our work is to help them see the possibilities and help them see how this can come to fruition, what this can look like, to help them imagine it so fear isn’t a barrier.”

Anna Emenova, associate professor of assistive and special education technology, and Jeff Offutt, professor of software engineering, are also involved in the project that includes Old Dominion University and CodeVA, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to bring equitable computer science education to Virginia students.

For now, the project is focused on Norfolk, Virginia, schools. The plan is for it to be a model for the state and perhaps nationally as more states include such curricula.

“It has enormous implications for today’s students, who will be tomorrow’s leaders,” said Mark Ginsberg, dean of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “I’m delighted that Mason, and Amy through her work, are being regarded as national leaders in this important area of development in the literacy world.”

In November 2017, Virginia became the first state to make computer science and coding training mandatory for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. For higher grades, the curriculum is offered as an elective.

The trick, Hutchison said, is to help teachers communicate the curriculum in an age-appropriate way that also works for students without a computer science or coding background.

“What we’re doing at this stage is what we call visual programming,” Hutchison said. “You don’t have to learn a programming language. Basically, you are dragging blocks together—command blocks, essentially. What that teaches is the thinking behind programming, the logic of it, the ‘if-then’ relationships.”

“They’re learning the thinking,” Hutchison added. “So when it comes time to learn the actual programming language, it’s much simpler to do.”

Hutchison said teachers will experience their first training in the Mason-developed program at a week-long immersion session in the summer of 2019. Training updates will occur throughout the rest of the NSF project, which runs through 2021.

“All the work I do is pushing forward new innovations, and I always try to keep a balanced perspective,” Hutchison said. “But I’m personally really excited about this.”