3 Keys To Creativity And Computer Science

How can we combine creativity and computer science to create positive education outcomes? The demand for computer science and information technology graduates is expected to grow by 14.6% over the next decade, much faster than any other area. While the number of computer science graduates is increasing, it is still not enough to meet the growing demand for STEM related jobs. Technical jobs also pay significantly more than other careers, yet many students continue to shy away from STEM fields.  

So, how do we encourage more students to pursue computer science which leads to both a lucrative and a fulfilling career? Here are three strategies to address challenges that students face in technical areas. 

Change Mindset 

One of the barriers to learning computer science is the perception that not everyone can become good at it. Parents, educators and others can inadvertently reinforce this stereotype when they use phrases like “not a technical person”. Much like the mindset about math, which plays a key role in the poor performance among US students, limiting beliefs about computer science creates a hesitancy towards the subject. When the adults in a child’s life themselves feel traumatized with subjects like math or computer science, it’s not surprising that the child develops a fear of approaching that subject. 

The reality is that there really is no “math brain” or a “computer science brain”. Most people can learn these subjects once they get over their mental block and put in the effort to learn. Neuroscience research shows that the human brain is quite malleable and it grows when you are learning a new skill. MRI scans of students doing math show that when students make a mistake a synapse fires even when students are not aware they made a mistake. As a result the brain grows when students are struggling with a concept.  

The good news, however, is that mindsets can be changed. Growth mindset, a concept pioneered by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, is one approach to help students shift their mindset towards a subject that they find difficult. Helping students recognize that the process of learning any skill is going to feel uncomfortable as your brain starts to grow and reconfigure itself in order to become good at the new skill.  

Beyond building growth mindsets, educators need to combat the harmful stereotype that computer science is not “cool” or that it’s for “nerds”. This is where framing computer science as a way to exercise creativity is useful. Mitchel Resnick, Professor at MIT and creator of Scratch, believes we need to view computers more as finger paint instead of as some esoteric technology. He explains, “…until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television, computers will not live up to their full potential.” Just like finger paints and unlike televisions, computers can be used for designing and creating things. Encouraging students to use computers in different ways to solve problems, or create new things can shape their attitudes in a more positive direction. 

Build Thinking Skills Early

STEM fields face a high attrition rate (~50%) as many students switch their major part way through. When students’ first exposure to a programming language is in college, they find the coursework more challenging and are more likely to drop out of the course. One way to combat this problem is to start building computational thinking skills early on. Computational thinking is an approach to formulating problems in a way that computers could be used to solve them. 

Building computational thinking skills is not hard and doesn’t necessarily need expensive resources like computers and software for all students. As an example, the Computer Science Unplugged project uses games and activities to expose children to thinking styles expected of a computer scientist, all done without using any computers. Not only do students learn concepts but the group games also build social connection and make the whole experience more enjoyable. In another example, students create an interactive play while learning programming fundamentals (like sequential logic, conditionals or flowcharts) along with creative thinking (associational and analogical thinking) and storytelling. The advantage of using an unplugged approach is that students can be introduced to useful computer science concepts at a younger age without making it overwhelming for them. 

Add Project Based Learning

Projects are another way to make learning more engaging and combat the negative stereotypes students might hold at the same time. When researchers at a university in Ohio redesigned their computer science classes to encourage more creative and hands-on learning, they found that in addition to an improvement in the quality of student work, the three year retention rate increased by 34%!  This is especially important for women, who typically view computer science courses  “to be overly technical, with little room for individual creativity.” 

By encouraging students to apply the concepts they are learning towards a project of their own choosing, educators can create an environment that students personally find meaningful. It also helps students view computer science as another tool that they can use to solve problems that they encounter. 

Technology has become an integral part of our lives and most work now requires some level of technical competence. The demand for STEM, and especially CS, is only going to accelerate as we move further into the 21st century. To encourage more students to pursue computer science, parents and educators need to pay attention to limiting mindsets, provide creative opportunities to learn core thinking skills and projects to apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios.  

This article first appeared on edCircuit

What should learning look like when schools reopen?

Over the last few months schools and teachers have had to drastically change teaching and adapt in real time to school closures. As summer approaches and schools start planning for the next year, they are yet again faced with the possibility of full or partial closures. However, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to try different models of learning that can be beneficial even in the long-term. 

Covid-related school closures have created a situation where in-person interaction has become a precious resource. Maintaining adequate physical distance, temperature screenings, and frequent deep cleanings are all adding a significant expense to normal day-to-day interactions that we had come to take for granted. We now need to treat classroom time as a precious resource―by conserving it and using it mindfully where it’s most effective. For example, a teacher giving a lecture to a classful of students is not a good use of classroom time as students could do that just as well remotely. 

The most effective way to structure learning would be to prioritize classroom time for building skills that require interaction and can’t be developed in isolation, while leaving individual work for offline.

Skills that need active interaction time with peers and teachers primarily fall under the 21st century skills umbrella – skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration. So it makes sense to “flip” learning along the boundary of 21st century skills and academic content. Here are some activities that would benefit most from in-person time, where the teacher plays the role of a coach or facilitator in helping students develop critical skills. 

Creativity and Collaboration

A key thinking pattern that underlies creativity is associative thinking―the ability to combine different ideas into something meaningful. When students discuss and build on each other’s ideas toward a common solution, they are exercising their associative thinking. The same skills also build healthy collaboration – instead of students trying to compete with each other to make their idea “win”, they try to include everyone’s ideas as best as they can. Teachers can help build these skills by observing how students interact with their group members, and guiding them to include all voices and focus on joint problem solving. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is when an individual improves the quality of their thinking by applying intellectual standards. It includes underlying skills like reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, judging, inferencing and reflecting. 

Socratic questioning and classroom discussions are a good way to discuss open-ended issues and build critical thinking. Critical thinking can be done both online or face-to-face, but there are differences. In online discussions students tend to use more evidence based reasoning as they can research before making their argument, while in face-to-face mode students listen to other ideas more and expand on them due to the spontaneous nature of the discussion. A blended model that capitalizes on the advantages of both models, can be a useful way to build critical thinking.  

Project Based Learning

Project based learning provides an avenue for students to be engaged in active, real-world problem solving. For students to gain most from PBL, they have to encounter and struggle with key concepts and skills behind the project. They build their thinking and knowledge in an experiential manner as they actively problem solve, by themselves or within a group.

The pandemic is causing significant disruption to the learning process and will require restructuring of lesson plans to address additional closures. Prioritizing 21st century skills for in-person classroom time can help stimulate students to think, engage in discussions, stay connected with their peers and learn from them. 

The full version of this article appeared on edCircuit