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Dr. Lori Assaf and Dr. Sean Justice Receive a National Science Foundation Grant for Their Developmental Research Project

Nicholas Butler  I  June 22, 2020


Dr. Lori Assaf (left) & Dr. Sean Justice (right)

The National Science Foundation has awarded Dr. Lori Assaf and Dr. Sean Justice with a new grant for their developmental research project, “Exploring PreK-2 Teachers’ Abilities to Identify CT Precursors and Implement Learning Activities that Strengthen Computer Science in Early Childhood Classrooms.” Dr. Assaf is a professor in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction department with over 18 years of educational experience while specializing in literacy programs such as the Central Texas Writing Project. Dr. Justice is an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design’s Art Education program with experience in physical computing, creative coding, and technology research. This project is a unique collaborative effort for Texas State University due to the cross-culture of Dr. Assaf’s and Dr. Justice’s specialized content areas.

Dr. Assaf and Dr. Justice are interested in incorporating computational learning into early-childhood educational disciplines. Therefore, the project will focus on strengthening a cohort of teachers’ computational skills as a direct learning experience. Dr. Justice recognizes children’s cognitive abilities as developmental skills that can be improved through computational activities. Dr. Justice states, “Computation is not foreign to learning experiences. Computer science education is not exclusively a subset of math education but can be thought of more broadly as one of several literacies children acquire in the process of play.” Dr. Justice believes computational skills should be contextualized across multiple disciplines. This will provide children with comprehensive learning opportunities to enhance their participation as citizens of today’s computational learning communities.

Dr. Assaf recognizes the importance of providing educators with learning opportunities to further improve their engagement with students. She would like to help teachers hone their computational skills which will enable them to identify their students’ cognitive abilities. Dr. Assaf states, “It is important to position teachers first as learners. This will make teachers more aware of the early steps of computational thinking. There are no control groups in this study so we can build relationships with teachers and learn from their experiences.” By providing educators with computational learning experiences, Dr. Assaf and Dr. Justice will be able to expand on computational interventions as curriculum.  The project will be conducted with educators from the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District (SMCISD). The project's abstract confirms “the research will include two cohorts of 15 PreK-2 teachers recruited from the SMCISD in years one and two of the project.”

Dr. Justice believes the computer coding discipline should be more diverse and accessible to students. He states, “There is a lack of diversity in computer science education; all students should have access to computational learning opportunities.” Furthermore, Dr. Justice would like for computational thinking to be embraced as a practical learning tool that empowers meaning-making in the same way writing, reading, and mathematics are applied. Dr. Assaf explains the project will provide “culturally relevant computer science learning activities for young children." Each project phase will consist of useful methods to further analyze computational learning. The three phases of this project include “the exploration of and reflection on computer science and computational thinking skills and practices, noticing and naming computer science precursor skills and practices in early childhood learning, and collaborative design, implementation and assessment of learning activities aligned with standards across content areas.” This developmental project will inform educators and serve as a model to implement computational thinking in curriculum across multiple disciplines to further improve students’ learning opportunities.