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SOU grant will develop elementary school computational thinking methods

A $299,000 National Sciences Foundation grant to Southern Oregon University to enhance computational thinking in public schools won’t be reinventing the wheel. Instead, it involves elementary school teachers who will figure out how to incorporate CT into what they are already doing in the classroom.

“What’s so special about this grant is recognition that teachers are equally as vital in the research processes as the academics are,” said Eva Skuratowicz, director of SOU’s Research Center, which leads the effort. “Instead of starting from research nobody has talked about, they are in from the ground floor.”

According to Wikipedia, computational thinking is a set of problem-solving methods that involve expressing problems and their solutions in ways that a computer could execute. It is seen as a key to preparing students for the workforce.

“We are really focused on K-5,” said Skuratowicz. “That’s where students need to gain the confidence and skills in computational thinking undergirding computer science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), getting them confident in how to think in this world and to be productive and contribute to Oregon’s economy, ultimate enhancing the workforce.”

Grant success was achieved on the third attempt in a collaborative effort by the research center and the Ashland and the Phoenix-Talent School districts that started in 2015. It’s titled “Empowering K-5 Teachers in Southern Oregon Through CT.”

“It’s exciting we are being recognized in this way,” said Skuratowicz. “It’s the first time Southern Oregon University has received a Computer Science for All NSF grant, and the first in Southern Oregon.”

In October, a networked improvement community will be formed with two teachers each from Talent, Phoenix and Orchard Hill elementary schools in the Phoenix-Talent School District and Bellview, John Muir, Helman, Walker and Willow Winds in the Ashland School District. Some of the participants will be from the group that worked to secure the grant. The outcomes will be used in a summer institute in 2020.

Teachers and researchers will meet for three study cycles over the academic year, first brainstorming ideas, then trying them in the classrooms before refining them, said Skuratowicz. The teachers will likely also bring in their own lesson plans to determine how computational thinking can be incorporated into curricula.

Lessons learned from that experience will be used for the summer institute in 2020, which will have 16 elementary teachers and four bilingual elementary teachers from the two districts. All teachers in the programs will receive stipends.

“We’ll do it and see if it works, then really refine the process before we have the summer institute,” said Skuratowicz.

Ultimately outcomes from the project could benefit schools across the nation. There may be lesson plans that incorporate CT in elementary subjects and instructional materials.

Besides Skuratowicz, other local members of the research team include computer science associate professor Maggie Vanderberg from SOU and Eping Hung, who teaches computing to students at Willow Wind in Ashland and works in the computer industry. From outside of the area, Gladys Krause from William and Mary College, a specialist in multilingual and multicultural education, will contribute her expertise, while Joseph Wilson with American Institute for Research, who has worked on similar grants before, will serve as external evaluator for the effort.

Among local teachers who have been involved with the collaborative effort are Shannan Lozano from Phoenix-Talent, and Dylana Garfas and Trish Dorr from Ashland. They all worked on the effort to gain the grant.

“We are going to be learning as we go as well as seeing how students problem solve in all curriculums,” said Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry. “The values are having two local school districts and researchers at SOU to look into implementation. When you have funds to do research and help students succeed, that is exciting.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Southern Oregon University