Neag School Researchers Developing Computational Thinking Unit for High School Biology Classes

As computational thinking becomes an increasingly important part of STEM fields, a group of researchers is developing a program to prepare high school students with these skills.


As the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) becomes increasingly computational, promoting students’ computational thinking is essential to prepare them for future STEM careers.

Neag School assistant professor of learning sciences, Ido Davidesco, has received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a month-long computational thinking unit in high school biology classes.

Davidesco will work with Neag School colleagues Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead, Christopher Rhoads, and John Settlage, as well as Aaron Kyle from Columbia University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The project will enhance students’ computational thinking through hands-on neural engineering experiences. Computational thinking involves strategies like using abstractions and pattern recognition to represent problems in new ways, organizing and analyzing data, breaking problems down into smaller pieces, thinking about a problem as a series of ordered steps or “algorithmic thinking,” and generalizing this process to a wider variety of problems.

“In K-12 education, computational thinking has largely been constrained to computer science and programming courses,” Davidesco, the project lead, says. “This project addresses a critical need to incorporate computational thinking into other STEM fields, in this case, biology and engineering, to introduce students to the computational nature of science nowadays.”

As part of the program students will measure their own muscle and brain activity using low-cost, wearable sensors. They will then analyze the data and design a brain-computer interface to turn neural activity into real-world output, like a mechanical claw, powered by brain activity. In addition to designing curriculum materials, the interdisciplinary project team will develop an interactive web-based app to guide students through the design process and a complimentary professional development program for teachers. Neuroscience and engineering Ph.D. students and postdocs will serve as STEM mentors for the high school students.

The project will include approximately 500 students from 18 ninth and tenth grade biology classes. Incorporating this unit into regular biology courses rather than specialized electives will ensure more students have the benefit of participating.

The program will be implemented in a range of schools including an all-girls school and schools whose student body is primarily students from minoritized groups. This diversity will ensure this project reaches groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Through this project, the researchers hope to spark high school students’ interest in STEM and encourage them to pursue STEM in college and as careers.

The project team will evaluate the success of the program by looking at the students’ projects, interviews, classroom observations, and surveys.

This project is part of the NSF Discovery Research preK-12 program (DRK-12). DRK-12’s mission is to enhance the learning and teaching of STEM subjects in preK-12 schools using innovative resources.

Davidesco holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His research interests include studying how students learn science using portable EEG and eye tracking technologies and enhancing authentic research experiences in STEM education.

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