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Success Stories

Formal studies of computer science curricula are somewhat hard to come by. On the other hand, more informal "success stories" demonstrating effective classroom practices are easier to find:

Students teaching Students: Logo for Writing Video Games
In her 1995 book entitled Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children's Learning, Yasmin B. Kafai describes a "rather unusual learning experiment" in which inner-city fourth graders used Logo to write games teaching third graders about fractions (xiii). This six-month project, designed to test the tenets of constructivism and other abstract teaching theories, emphasized the concept of "learning through design" (7), put the usual dry fractions curriculum into a much more interesting context for both the third graders playing the games and the fourth graders writing them.

Interestingly, the students assigned to make the game scored the highest out of all the experimental groups on "Level 9" problems on the Rational Number Concept Test (see graph on the right). These problems represented the most conceptually-challenging problems on the exam, requiring students to convert "pictorial representations" of rational numbers to usual fractions (262). In fact, on one problem in this group, the game designers outscored the next high-scoring group by 20%; also, students in this group raised an average of 15% on the Boston Curriculum Reference Test after completing the unit.

Such an extended programming activity also exposed the students to the intellectual pursuit of programming. While many of the elementary school programming activities in Logo are routine applications of geometric facts and simple algorithms, this more open activity allowed students to express their creativity through programming. This degree of creativity led to a variety of student games, and the students generally seemed more excited to participate (see part of one student's notes below).

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the study worked out quite as well. Most notably, while the project exposed the game designers to fractions, the majority of their time was probably spent on creativity and devising algorithms rather than solving math problems. For this reason, direct curricular benefits of the program were mixed; for instance, the author notes that one student "did not deal with any fractions either in his written designs or his actual programming" (197). This observation suggests that while open assignments may make students more enthusiastic about programmers and supplement their general problem-solving skills, they are harder to control in terms of curricular content. Even so, the author found that in general "[l]earning programming through designing instructional software or educational games proved to be a successful avenue for young designers" (280); students in the study created remarkably complex programs that handled input and animation through their own design.

"Albert" expresses his excitement after finishing a part of his project (216)

Supporting Advanced Students with Programming: Supplementing Basic Instruction with Programming
In a 1993 Logo study, researcher Eadie Adamson discovered that programming not only supports basic classroom instruction but actually can provide gifted students with a means to explore advanced topics. Adamson describes in depth her experiences tutoring an advanced student in Logo in lieu of math class for an entire year. In this process, the student was able to explore geometric patterns (such as the one on the left), angles, dimensional analysis, fractals, and other topics usually not covered until later courses in middle school and even high school. Beyond his basic instruction, however, the student was able to discover on his own several advanced topics and issues pertaining to his own interests. For example, minor inaccuracies in his drawing program led Adamson to guide him toward the topics of numerical accuracy and chaos theory. In another situation, the student discovered the motivations for writing functions and "factoring" code as part of a unit on generating and drawing tesselations. Although the opportunity to for students to work one-on-one as in this study are limited, the sheer number of topics discovered by the student even using a simple language like Logo begins to indicate the potential of programming activities in the classroom. With the right guidance, computer programming enables students to discover abstract or otherwise difficult topics rather than simply have them explained.


Early Acquisition of Computer Science · ©2008 Justin Solomon and Peter Rusev