This past spring, through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we completed a project that identified factors that drive the willing of teachers and mentors to participate in initiatives aimed at developing computational thinking skills. Here’s a summary of that effort and what we found.
Solid computational thinking skills are useful across domains and provide a key foundation for the development of tech talent. Developing these skills within computer science classes is constrained by several factors:
Computer science classes are not widely available, particularly in schools that serve diverse populations.
Educators certified to teach computer science are in short supply.
There are limited incentives for teachers to pursue certification and few educators do.
Computer science classes are largely taught at the high school level. If we want to develop strong computational thinking skills among students, they need exposure to and practice with them throughout their elementary and secondary school years.
A strict focus on computer science as the domain where these skills are developed limits the points of engagement for both students and teachers. As a result, it weeds out both students and teachers whose primary interests (at present) lay outside of computer science.
Widespread development of computational thinking (CT) skills will require a different approach— one that can leverage the interests and passions of both students and teachers in domains outside of computer science.
Computational Thinking Interviews
Through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we interviewed a total of 11 teachers involved with either MPS’s efforts to introduce Project GUTS, SHARP Literacy’s Design Through Code (DTC) program, or TEALS. Recognizing that computational thinking is a perspective new to most teachers and they would benefit from outside support, we also conducted interviews with 10 mentors from the FIRST Robotics and TEALS programs. Each of these programs provides an opportunity for students to develop computational thinking skills. Apart from TEALS, all are in domains and classes outside of computer science.
We use the lens of Jobs to Be Done to understand how teachers and industry mentors make decisions about where and how to invest their time and energy. Adoption of a useful and effective practice will move no faster than the practice solves a real problem for teachers in the context within which teachers operate. Failure to understand the context within which a teacher might employ a practice and how this practice fits given their other priorities will, at best, slow adoption. At worst, it will lead to active resistance. For mentors, if the chance to guide students in work that can build computational thinking skills does not align with their own goals, pressures, and schedule, they won’t do it.
Findings & Recommendations
“I felt it was my responsibility as aneducator to at least learn and bring coding to them”
For teachers, the primary factors which led them to participate in one of the three programs noted above are:
Support from their school or district administration
A desire to help their students develop coding skills
For Project GUTS teachers, a recognition that the tools and curriculum provided a much richer way for their students to explore topics that involve dynamic systems
A lower cost to deliver the experience for students
Curriculum that fits within their schedule
Factors holding them back from doing more with the programs are a lack of experience with coding, modeling dynamic systems (Project GUTs), or design thinking (DTC).
“I want to help kids do cool, hard things.”
The mentors we interviewed are motivated by a desire to help students build skills–not just in coding, but an ability to work with a team– and to see them succeed in a challenging project. Their willingness to participate is tempered by the obligations they feel towards their colleagues at work– they want to know that the time they spend as volunteers at worst does not impact their team, and at best, makes them a better team member.
Given what we heard over the course of these interviews, we see a number of opportunities for interventions which could support teachers who want to expose their students to computational thinking in general and speed the adoption of Project GUTS in particular.
Engage students in coding as a way to explore or solve problems
“…the interactions of students, the sharing of ideas, are almost more adult.”
Project GUTS provides an opportunity to expose students to coding in ways that allow them to explore ideas and problems in science. The tools provide a way for students to test ideas and lets their curiosity around the topic or problem at hand drive their desire to master the coding required to do so. This approach offers both teachers and students many more possible points of engagement than would a program focused on simply learning how to code.
Leverage teachers’ enthusiasm for Project GUTS
We were surprised by the enthusiasm teachers showed for Project GUTS. Teachers involved with the program recognize its value, can see opportunities where it can be used effectively, and are excited enough by the possibilities that they look to get colleagues involved.
Support teachers who want to do more with Project GUTS
The teachers we spoke with all had specific ideas for the topics they’d like to explore with Project GUTS. Several mentioned a desire to collaborate with colleagues at their own school or to connect with colleagues at other schools working on the same topics. Beyond having additional training or ad hoc support from district specialists, the current set of Project GUTS teachers could benefit from:
a program to develop and test models and integrate into curriculum;
a network of local practitioners with regular opportunities to meet in person;
training opportunities for their
Create a mentor pool for Project GUTS teachers
Teachers were not completely confident in their ability to make full use of the tools without additional support. An outside mentor who can bring domain expertise around the systems to be modeled and some sense of how best to do so would provide welcome help.
The time commitment here need not be anywhere near as intensive as that required by TEALS. Having some availability to exchange ideas with a teacher and visit a class a few times per semester when students are working through models would be a valued addition to the support currently provided by colleagues and curriculum specialists within MPS.
Teachers value on-going relationships with mentors and want the same for their students. Having a mentor assigned to a teacher for the duration of a school year is preferable to a pool of volunteers where any one of whom might drop in on an ad-hoc basis. This partnership would be further enhanced if teachers have a chance to work with mentors who interests are strongly aligned with their own.
Demonstrate that the employer values mentors’ work with students
Mentors want to know that the time they spend with students is valued by their employer and that it does not distract from the work their team needs to complete. While mentors recognized that work with K-12 students can provide an opportunity to develop skills they can leverage in the workplace, few of those we spoke with indicated this was recognized by their employer.
Overt signals from the employer that mentorship work is valued as a professional development opportunity by the firm will leave mentors more willing to participate. As examples, a firm might:
Provide employer sponsored opportunities for mentors to learn how to effectively engage with students– this would both demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the effort and help mentors be more effective in the classroom
Incorporate meaningful student mentorship as a recognized track in building leadership and communication skills for employees
Provide opportunities for mentors’ students/teachers to share their work with co-workers. This could come through on-site presentations, newsletter articles, or by encouraging attendance at off-site presentations.
Facilitate deep connections between mentors and the classroom
The desire of teachers for support they can count on, and that of mentors to see growth are more easily satisfied when mentors have an ongoing role with the class or classes they support. Mentors who have built good relationships with the students they work with are an asset to the teacher and allow the teacher to play a higher value role within the classroom.
Want to know explore our findings in greater detail? Our full report detailed report is available here. If you’re interested in leveraging what we’ve found, or helping Milwaukee move forward with any of our recommendations, let us know.
Family/date night math came to the NEWaukee Night Market last night. Math educators Mary Langmyer and David Temple created opportunities for attendees to solve number puzzles, play with shapes, build nets with Magnatiles, use “shape finders” and participate in our first “street survey”. It was a chance to engage with math (and mathematicians) in playful and creative ways as well as chance to meet others who stopped by for positive math experiences! All in all, a night of great (and humorous) conversations and learning for everyone!
Following on from discussions with COA staff earlier in the summer, Collab-Labist Mary Langmyer set up a number of math activities for COA’s family picnic. Children had fun with the chance to play number games, count collections, create number sentences, build with blocks, make patterns and design attribute trains…and play with bubbles! It was a great day to sit down and relax with new friends… while using one’s imagination to engage with math!
Last night Silver Spring Neighborhood Center held a family night for parents in the neighborhood or whose children attend Browning Elementary School. As part of the activities they planned for the evening, we brought along some math activities to see what children were inspired by.
The playground at Browning has a number spiral that to date had been used as the place to pile coats while playing elsewhere on the playground. Last night we proposed rules for some games students might play using a pair of large foam dice to figure their next move.
The big hit of the evening were the Zometool bubble wands students built.
It was a beautiful evening to watch bubbles drift across the playground, or when the breeze calmed, observe the structures created within a wand. A student was heard to say “that’s a tetrahedron!”
On May 2nd, UWM hosted the final design review for students participating in our challenge to design a replacement for the wooden water tower that services the Zoo’s steam locomotives. Teams presented their designs to a review panel that included:
Wade Kostiwa, project Manager CG Schmidt
Jason Gross, Structural Engineer, Graef USA
Davidson Ward, Coalition for Sustainable Rail
Ken Ristow Milwaukee County Zoo
Brian Krause, Milwaukee County Zoo
Over lunch, the review panel identified key concepts to include in the final specification. This list included contributions from all of the participating teams.
Brett Peters, Dean of the School of Engineering provided closing remarks.
We’re grateful to have the help of Jason Gross from Graef to finalize the spec and provide the engineering analysis on the final design. This summer, through the support of Building2Learn, UWM will host a two week workshop for a group of students from area high schools to produce construction drawings for the new tower.
This fall we’ll work with a schools to fabricate components for the tower. That will also see the kick off of our next challenge — design of a coal handling system to replace the current manual process.
If you’d like to get your school or company involved in the initiative, let us know. Here’s how.
We had a record crowd for Collab Lab 27, where we explored ways to enable kids and parents find creative and playful ways to engage in math throughout Milwaukee. The focus for the session started with an idea Mary Langmyer raised coming out of our December Collab Lab– what would it look like if we could see math everywhere in Milwaukee? We worked with Mary to put together a vision statement, and started talking to folks we wanted to pull in to help figure this out.
Mary introduced the evening’s topic and several of her sources of inspiration. We then had attendees form groups that each contained a mix of educators and community partners. Their first task was a brainstorming activity to capture ideas what seeing math everywhere might look like.
Each group was then asked to pick an idea to develop. We had them flesh out details, get some feedback from other attendees, and then outline what it would take to move the idea forward. Here’s what the groups came up with.
Estimation on Location
A scavenger hunt to estimate distances, times, quantities, percents age, etc. of neighborhood landmarks.
What’s the math around dying the Milwaukee river green?
What: On the (now past) occasion of dying the Milwaukee river green, have students estimate how much dye is actually required.
Why: Apply concepts of volume, concentration, and flow rate to a real-life problem
Where: Competition at the Fiserv Forum where teams present their calculations. Winning team gets to participate in the ceremony to dye the river.
Who: MPS middle and high school students
When: NBA Playoffs for 2020?
Partners: Bucks, City of Milwaukee, DNR, Brewers, DNC, local universities
Resources: River measurement estimates (with which to calculate volume; data on dye concentration levels/coverage
Funding: Sponsors to fund Fiserv event; food & beverage donations
Test: Get the data from 2019 event; model the problem in a classroom to calculate volume and use food coloring to estimate concentration levels
Milwaukee’s Movable Bridges
Math explorations while waiting for a bridge to lower
Where: Milwaukee River bridges along Plankinton Avenue and Water Street
What: Younger kids – count the number of boats going past; older kids — geometry of bridges (height, angle when raised, shape), velocity, duration of events — boats passing, bridge raising/lowering; how can this process be made more efficient for everyone impacted?
When: Anytime, or while waiting for a bridge
Why: We have a captive audience that needs to do something during the wait time.
Who: Drivers, walkers, bikers, public transit riders, boaters
Funding: grants, advertising/promotion, brands pay for printing, food entrepreneurs for product placement; UW extension, WIC community outreach.
Test: individual store, easy to duplicate if successful; community stores
If you want to bake a pizza you must first invent the universe
An after school program to grow and prepare food
When: After school
Where: Neighborhood center
Why: People eat every day. If you are seeing math in something you do everyday, you’re learning math (in addition to nutrition and health)
Elementary School – garden
Middle School – Grocery store
High School – Test kitchen
How: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, grants, neighborhood center, partner
Partners: Grocery store, farm, restaurant, CSA school PTO, neighborhood center, Discovery World,
Build a Business
Student run business as exposure for applied math
What: Understanding economics of building a business; competition w/startup funding and showcase of ideas.
Why: Teach students fundamental math skills used in a business
Where: After school program
Who: Middle and high school students
When: During school (equity); after school
Partners: Banks, JA, area entrepreneurs, foundations, sporting teams
Barriers: Time, funding for startups, curriculum, scalability
Resources: Leighton (MPS Rec), interested teachers/school districts, Universities, business schools, B-school students
Testing: 1-2 MPS After School summer programs/CLC site
Thanks again to Mary Langmyer for her enthusiasm and work to pull the session together, and The Commons for providing the space for this month’s Collab Lab. Thanks also to Monique Liston from Ubuntu Research who brought her grad students to both lend a hand and participate in the session.
For those of you that want to connect with or learn more about some of the math folks and resources from the Collab Lab:
Teams from Menomonee Falls High School and Elmbrook’s Launch program were able to meet us at Marquette’s Visualization Lab (MARVL) to walk through their models for a new water tower at the Zoo train depot. Chris Larke, the Visual Technology Specialist for the College of Engineering set up the demonstration to include exploded views of the models with supporting documentation arrayed in the background.
To explore the models, and conduct a mini-review, we donned 3D glasses to view stereoscopic images projected on four walls within what staff call “The Cave”.
After a review of both models and a chance for students to drive the presentation, Mark Federle, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, was kind enough to give us a tour of the Olin Engineering building. Thanks Mark and Chris for all that went in to putting this together!
Collab Lab 26 focused on storytelling and how we can use those practices to empower student voices and drive engagement.
We started the discussion with the question “What hopes do you have when students are given a chance to tell stories that matter to them?”:
Students will be able to share stories with an authentic audience
Students will develop a sense of identity and worth
Students will have the chance to understand a commonality of experience
Students are able to advocate for their ideas
Students capture history making connections
The process models collaboration, community, and critical thinking
Students understand the power of their voice, and empathy for others
Students share and support authentic representation, identity, and learning
Empathy – students see the ethical and therapeutic potential of seeing others as human
Students gain a sense of freedom, choice, ownership, authenticity, bravery, and dignity from the stories they share
Authentic storytelling comes with risks, so we also asked about the fears participants had when students tell stories that are meaningful to them:
We are not prepared to hear a story in a supportive way
A lack of efficacy or ability to change lives
If we don’t teach the art and science of storytelling, students will stop telling them– they need an audience
No acceptance of failure (shame, exposure, sharing)
Sensation of negative, leads to negative – e.g. if one student tells a story of harmful behavior does that lead others to emulate that behavior?
It is difficult to combat the toxicity of Celebrity as Hero.
Vulnerability of students (low initial stakes with incremental risk)
Exposure of trauma without an ability to care for it
From there we moved on to ask “What questions can help students identify stories worth telling?” Here, the need to as these questions in an iterative, repetitive way was called out as a necessary step in getting students to think deeply about their responses. The goal for participants here is to help students find a story they can tell from the heart.
Who are you?
Where are you from?
For what and for whom?
How can this story touch one person?
How do you tell different stories to different people?
What’s your reason – your personal mission statement?
What is/are your:
Our final question asked participants what they need to help students tell these stories:
To create a culture and community that supports students’ voices, and provides safety and comfort as they tell their stories
To give students options about how to tell their stories
To provide students a space that makes them feel awesome
Time, flexibility, community, connections
Access to storytelling expertise
Time for students to play
A culture of storytelling that recognizes the need for authentic listening, and receiving
The opportunity to use non-linguistic media
Give the focus on storytelling, one of our discussion groups captured what this might look like as a story:
At MLK Elementary, a 6th grader who was sometimes seen as a troublemaker got up in a front of a room and told the story of how she realized she was a naturally gifted pool player. This resulted in lots of positive attention for her! The workshops and prep time she used paid off!
Milwaukee Visionaries Project (MVP) UWM-sponsored after-school animation program serving middle and high school students from throughout the city of Milwaukee. Our programming for middle and high school students aligns with the MPS school year and we enroll students on a rolling basis throughout the year. MVP does not currently offer a summer session, but UWM’s greater Art Ed networking organization (ArtsECO) runs Pre-College Art and Design classes for high school students during our off-season.
ArtsECOBased within UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, our diverse programming offerings develop teachers as change-makers. ArtsECO is backed by a strong and sustainable community of arts organizations, non-profits, and K12 school partnerships. We offer monthly Meet-Up events available to the public as well!
Water: How can we engage students in authentic learning experiences related to water and water technologies?
Beyond the facts that Milwaukee sits next to a whole lot of water and spans several watersheds, it is home to more than 200 water technology companies. This creates an opportunity not just to explore physical connections to water and the environment, but to tap into expertise around how water is used and managed. At our February Collab Lab, we pulled together individuals from area organizations engaged water technology and issues from a variety of perspectives. We then sat them down with educators to flesh out some ideas and make the connections that can help bring those ideas to life.
Amber DuChateau was kind enough to step in as a guest facilitator. She guided our discussion groups through a process that began with participants sharing what drives their work and what excites them now about what they’re working on. From our perspective, the really interesting work in schools is driven by teachers passions. This method of introduction provides a chance for them to connect with others who share their enthusiasm.
Our search for opportunities began with a brainstorming process within each discussion group. We asked each table to generate ideas for potential projects using one or more of these strategies:
Mix and match — What would it look like to combine exciting work from 2 or 3 members of your table?
Shift context — What does it look like to take exciting work and put it in a different location, class (art music, language arts, history, business), age group?
Empower students — what does it look like when students drive the questions, act as mentors to younger students, lead the project
Distribute the work — what changes if you had 10 classes chipping in, what does it look like if you have 100?
Extend the scope — what changes if you can rely on the skills of students/teachers in other classes?
That process gave us a list of ideas that included:
What constitutes “healthy water”
How does water flow through the curriculum
aquaponics (our focus for Collab Lab 22)
connecting questions (inquiry) to answers (outcomes)
Test presentations of water related work before visitors to Discovery World
Tell the story of a drop of water
Tell the story of a drop of water through water bracelets (each token on a bracelet tells part of the story)
Enlist students in UWM’s School of Freshwater Science as mentors to MPS Science teachers working with Project GUTS
Tell the story of the Habitat Hotels constructed for the Harbor District by Bradley Tech students
Extend STEMhero‘s curriculum to connect students to look at water usage of businesses near schools
With those ideas in hand, each group moved on to select one idea and create a vision for what that might look like. Here’s where they landed:
Project Idea 1: Adopt a Storm Drain +
Students adopt one or more storm drains near their school. Students understand the function of storm drains, how pollution can enter the system, and be swept into area streams and Lake Michigan. Inspired by this understanding, they work to keep their storm drain(s) free from garbage that may be swept into the drain and out into area waterways.
Scalability– how can this effort spread
What education levels to target?
Green Schools Consortium
Project Idea 2: If I Were a Drop of Water
Engage student physically, mentally, and emotionally to understand the flow of a drop of water from where it lands in Milwaukee and its journey to Lake Michigan. Use a multidisciplinary approach to help students build these stories, which are then presented to an audience from the wider community.
Across the watersheds which cover Milwaukee in grades 6-12. Pilot the effort in 7th or 8th grade. Prep for the effort in the fall, get students outside in the spring to follow the path of water from their chosen source to the lake.
What’s Needed to Move Forward
Identify locations to use as starting point for water journey
Tap local expertise to do so (building connections between schools and partners)
Do a test run of the water journey with teachers
Map the work envisioned back to curriculum standards
How to get Started
Reach out to science curriculum specialists to help identify schools who might be willing to pilot
Run the idea past local experts to identify source locations that would allow students to follow interesting journeys
Project Idea 3: What Constitutes Healthy Water?
Incorporate actual water issues for Milwaukee– lead, lake levels, etc.
Include water quality into multidisciplinary curriculum
How to get Started
Identify a client (big or small) for the work
Craft a project to engage students in work to explore/address the client’s concerns around water.
Thanks again to The Commons for providing the space, to Amber for facilitating, and our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion: