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Embed computational thinking into PBL

By Jorge Valenzuela
July 17, 2018
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Like many of my students, my daughter, Anisa, is very familiar with using electronic circuits to make designs cool inventions. So, when I told Anisa and her classmates that we were going to incorporate computational thinking (CT) into a project-based learning (PBL) experience called the Computational Thinker’s Project, I was surprised by her question.

 “Isn’t coding only used by highly intelligent computer programmers?" she asked apprehensively.

I explained that coding is, indeed, a skill used by computer programmers. But CT is a process that can be understood by both machines and humans — and learning it would make her a better coder.

Anisa is not alone. Many of her peers — and educators as well — are intimidated by the terms coding and computational thinking. However, once the concept is understood as a systematic approach to solving problems, it becomes less daunting.

So if you're like Anisa and her classmates, don’t stress about coding. Focus instead on learning and applying CT in the familiar context of a STEAM design challenge that uses electronic circuits to make cool inventions. Here's how you can add CT and coding to a PBL unit and add to your students' creative toolbox.

ISTE Standards for Students

To provide context and clear indicators to CT, I begin by introducing my class to the ISTE Standards for Students and clearly explaining how CT is a problem-solving skill.

Anisa attends a very edtech savvy school system (CCPS) and although she was already familiar with the concepts of being an innovative designer and digital citizen — she had never seen a one-pager made by educators — especially one made for her and her classmates!

To ensure that our computational thinker’s project would be the vehicle for the intended learning of CT and coding — I facilitated the process in the following four steps.

Step 1: Introduce the design challenge, driving question and learning targets

Anisa’s goal is to study botany — and in her spare time, she loves to help her peers with their schoolwork. She even honed her teaching/tutoring skills by volunteering as a teaching assistant at the MathScience Innovation Center. Therefore, I framed this project around her interest in helping peers understand their subjects and incorporated a STEAM design challenge using littleBits as one of the products.

The driving question (DQ) for the project was, “How can we as computational thinkers design a children’s game that teaches younger peers foundational coding skills and the use of electronic circuits?“

Not new to the process, my students italicized new vocabulary (topics) in the driving question and underlined the items they already knew. My goal was to have them focus on new learning and how it connects to any previous knowledge for the game design.

Sample: “How can we as computational thinkers design a children’s game that teaches younger peers foundational coding skills and the use of electronic circuits?"

I gave students a short list of game design ideas to choose from, and Anisa settled on Hot Potato.

Some of the learning targets (LTs) I wanted students to understand were:

  • I can decompose each step of the coding process into minute details so that I can explain to others.
  • I can recognize patterns (similarities or common differences) that will help me make predictions about which bits (input, output, power, etc.) are appropriate for my game design.  
  • I can abstract any unnecessary information while coding my program.
  • I can develop a step-by-step algorithm for a personal task of my choosing (painting my nails, walking my dog, etc.).
  • I can develop step-by-step algorithms of code for the game program.
  • I can define and apply loops in the game program.
  • I can use variables to store data to be referenced for the game program.
  • I can define and apply conditional logic in the game program.
  • I can apply the remix step in the littleBits Invention Cycle to create new code for my game.

Note for teachers: The LTs used for this work were the rewriting (unpacking) of some indicators listed for the CT strand in the ISTE Standards for Students, the Hot Potato of Doom lesson and the Bloomfield Hills School student CT learning objectives.

LTs should be written in student-friendly language and are an excellent strategy for helping students focus learning, build vocabulary and request specific feedback. I highly recommend knowing the do's and don’ts when designing learning targets for students. Here are a helpful rubric and videos by EL Education to get started.

Step 2: Support understanding of CT

To begin addressing the LTs and scaffold CT learning, I introduced students to the essentials with a catchy video by JULES. The video supported their understanding because it provided a tangible visual of both the key concepts (the four elements of CT) and their application with and without computers — but within contexts that they were already familiar with.

To further support their understanding of CT, I introduced Anisa and the others to the work of the very awesome Dr. Shuchi Grover. Not only do they now have another point of reference to refer back to while working on the STEAM design challenge, but they also have another female role model to look up to — like Oprah, Ellen, Ayah Bdeir, Kim Lane, Emma Gonzales and Tarana Burke (among many other inspiring women) — and so do I!

I believe students are more inclined to get involved in computer science and STEAM activities when they see and learn from people engaged in highly collaborative and groundbreaking work who look like them. Inspiring students with excellent role models shouldn’t be limited to the edtech or CS worlds, either. Champions of movements that give voice to underrepresented populations (girls, African Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ students and others) often tell very compelling stories that many of our young people can be inspired by and relate to.

Step 3: Design time (work time)

Embed computational thinking into PBL

To transfer her new computational thinking skills and also help others, Anisa put her own spin on the popular kid’s game Hot Potato by designing a model that would help younger children understand the importance of electronic circuits, coding and technologies encountered in everyday life while enjoying the familiar game.

Using the littleBits Code Kit, she built the foundation of her Hot Potato game based on instructions and tinkered with an original design. Not changing the premise of Hot Potato (holding an object that’s passed around in a circle and when music/sound stops, the holder is eliminated), enabled her to recognize patterns, functions and purpose of both the hardware and code.

Upon mastering the new technology and various coding principles (apply loops, use variables to store data to be referenced and conditional logic), she developed her problem (game) and step-by-step solution (algorithm) that she coded using Google Blockly-based code. She used her code to control the timer, message and image display on the LED matrix of her Hot Potato game design. Before deciding on a final automated solution, she tested and redid her algorithmic design several times to make it to her liking.  

Note for teachers: During work time, it’s essential for you to facilitate learning. When working with groups of students, it is important to be well versed in the use of the Code Kit (or whatever technology you are using in your lessons/projects) and its app. Use the app to help you conduct mini-lessons and scaffolds of the coding concepts your learners need most (either individually or in groups).

Don’t forget to engage students in a design process. In this project Anisa used the littleBits invention cycle and the invention log checklist on page 16 of the code kit invention log to assess her work. I also highly recommend having the debugging checklist and the feedback chart. Also, use feedback protocols and the LTs to help students request and receive feedback for improving their work.

Step 4: Reflection for metacognition

I always stress to Anisa and my students the importance of reflecting for metacognition by providing them opportunities to think about their thinking and to develop a better understanding of how they learn best so they can become lifelong learners. For this purpose, I incorporated reflection throughout the various steps of the design challenge (both in the invention log journal and in our debriefings). 

One of Anisa’s replies to the reflection prompts was regarding how the ISTE Standards supported her learning of CT. She wrote in her journal, “I find the ISTE Standards provide good guidelines for helping me learn and apply the concepts/practices of CT and other standards that empower me with knowing how to blend my use of technology (both creatively and responsibly) with academics. I also like that I know the standards could be trusted because they were written by educators who know what students need best. More schools should implement these standards for their students!”

Note for teachers: The work described in this blog post is heavily influenced by practices (DQ, reflection, etc.) found in the blog Gold Standard PBL by the Buck Institute for Education and High Quality Project Based Learning. This is mainly due to my work with BIE.

It is important to note that Anisa teaching her new CT and coding skills to younger peers and publicly presenting her work were also products of the Computational Thinker’s Project.

For STEM/STEAM teachers wishing to enhance their use of PBL, I recommend the works of some very notable PBL experts:

More CS/CT resources to consider

Here are a number of resources to turn to for help:

Anisa Valenzuela is a ninth grader at Manchester High School in Chesterfield, Virginia. Anisa has already earned her Junior Master Gardeners Certificate and would like to attend college to continue learning botany. She has volunteered as a teacher’s assistant during a summer break at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond, Virginia, and often tutors her peers in science, geometry and STEAM designs.

Jorge Valenzuela is an educational coach and a graduate teaching assistant at Old Dominion University. He is also the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, Inc., a national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education, a national teacher effectiveness coach with the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA) and part of the Lead Educator program for littleBits. You can connect with Jorge on Twitter @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.

(Photos courtesy of littleBits.)