NSF Grant Helps Middle-School Students Gain Computer Science Skills

Harvey Mudd College computer science Professors Mike Erlinger and Zach Dodds have received a $596,501 grant to foster the computational skills of middle-school students.

The three-year National Science Foundation grant will fund the “MyCS: Middle Years Computer Science” program, which focuses on students from groups underrepresented in the computer science field.

“MyCS strives to bring our nation’s computer science education practices in line with the field’s importance to the economy, our innovation culture and our adaptability to future challenges,” said Erlinger. “It’s designed to pique the interest of early adolescent students and build a foundation of computer science vocabulary, algorithmic thinking and skillsets that allow them to sample the beauty and joy of computational creation.”

At the program’s core is the development of a computational identity, described as a student’s self-definition regarding his or her computational thinking skills. The program captures three facets of this identity: self-efficacy (the ability to use computation to solve new problems), integration (viewing computation as a tool “we” use) and personal choices, such as future computer science study or the use of computational creativity beyond the MyCS class.

“We believe middle school is a wonderful opportunity for exposure to computer science because students are starting to decide who they are,” said Dodds. “Our goal is to excite students about computation before they have been convinced that it is not something people like them do.”

The program includes professional development workshops for teachers—to provide the foundation for teaching MyCS—and academic-year support for MyCS students and teachers, provided by HMC students and faculty. It also includes assessments to record changes in students’ and teachers’ computational self-efficacy and the influence of MyCS on their future computational choices.

Gabriela Gamiz-Gomez, HMC’s Homework Hotline administrator, will serve as the MyCS program liaison with school district partners and the community. She will also coordinate HMC student tutors to support MyCS students throughout the academic year.

Program partners include Claremont Unified School District, Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Lihue, Hawaii, and Pomona Unified School District, which has approved MyCS as a middle-school elective in its district-wide curriculum. The Claremont Graduate University School of Education will provide continuing education credits for teachers involved in the MyCS program.