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Illustration of the four pillars of computational thinking
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Steve Shanabruch

Think like a computer

A pilot program, designed in part by educators at Sanford Underground Research Facility, is introducing computational thinking into elementary school curricula.

In Belle Fourche, South Dakota, science teacher Ann Anderson instructs 100 fifth-grade students each day. Recently, they were learning about matter. 

Her students were working to find out: Is an empty cup truly empty? How do we know atoms have even smaller sub-components? 

Anderson helped students tackle some of these questions through hands-on activities. And after each lesson, she challenged her students to think through how they approached the problem. “Did you take multiple steps to figure this out?” she asked. “Did you ignore some things so you could focus on the important things? Did you look for patterns?” 

These questions are designed to help students understand a concept called computational thinking. 

Computational thinking is not quite computer science. Rather, it’s a precursor to computer science; it’s the way computer scientists approach the problems that they want to solve using a computer.

“The goal is to help young students see computer science as an avenue they could pursue later in life.”

Anderson’s students—along with the students of 11 other fifth-grade teachers in South Dakota—are participating in a pilot program designed by educators at Black Hills State University, Sanford Underground Research Facility, and a South Dakota educational resource organization called Technology & Innovation in Education. 

The program is funded by a grant as a part of the National Science Foundation’s “Computer Science for All” initiative, which aims to provide all US students with the opportunity to learn about computer science and computational thinking as early as preschool. 

“The goal is to help young students see computer science as an avenue they could pursue later in life,” says Ben Sayler, lead investigator on the grant and a physical science and mathematics professor at BHSU. “If students at the lower grades are practicing and enjoying it, then when they get to high school and have the option of a computer science elective, they are more likely to feel like that is an option for them.”

Sharing the magic 

Ian Her Many Horses, who along with BHSU’s June Apaza and TIE’s Julie Mathiesen is a co-principal investigator on the grant, knows the utility of learning computing skills early on.

He built his first website—a tribute to Godzilla—as a high school student in the late 1990s at a public university’s summer STEM camp about 200 miles from his hometown on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. 

He says learning to make his own site made him feel akin to a pop-culture “hacker.” “It was just a static page, but it felt like magic,” Her Many Horses says. “You just type in a spell and instantly change what happens on the screen. That lit the spark in me.” 

When he returned to school, he bought a book titled Learn Visual Basic in 30 Days, convinced a teacher to create an independent study for him, and taught himself the programming language in a semester. 

After graduating, Her Many Horses went to CU Boulder to study computer science. His goal was to bring this magic back home. “I wanted students from my community to have the opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have,” he says. 

But at the time, most universities—CU Boulder included—did not train students to become licensed high school computer science educators. So Her Many Horses got a license in math education instead, then returned to his hometown as a math teacher and convinced the school’s administration to let him teach one computer science course. 

He says designing the course was a struggle. 

“I had a great amount of preparation to be a math teacher,” Her Many Horses says. “I understood the theories of learning, how to support students and how to help them think through concepts. But when I tried to teach computer science, I didn’t have that preparation or pedagogical content knowledge. I was teaching it the way I was taught, which at the time was sink-or-swim.” 

After a trial run, the course was cut from the school’s offerings. 

But Her Many Horses was convinced that the next generation of students would need to start learning these skills before college. He went back to CU Boulder and graduated with the university’s first-ever doctorate in computer science education. 

Now, Her Many Horses teaches other computer science educators as a professor at CU Boulder—and works toward systemic changes to support computer science learning, especially in rural classrooms. 

Building up to computer science 

Computational thinking can be summed up by its four pillars. 

First, there’s decomposition, or breaking problems into manageable pieces. Then, there’s abstraction, or identifying non-essential factors and removing them from our thought processes. Third, there’s pattern recognition, or figuring out how things are related. And last, there’s algorithmic thinking, or creating rules to lead to a solution.

To avoid overburdening educators, the new curriculum that teachers in South Dakota are trying embeds these four pillars in the disciplines teachers are already teaching. 

“As students investigate science concepts, we have them practice the four pillars,” says Nicol Reiner, director of the education team at SURF and a partner in the pilot program. “In the past, our curriculum didn’t emphasize computational thinking, but the concepts existed in there, silently. Now, we’re calling them out directly.”

Anderson introduced computational-thinking concepts into her science curriculum in the fall of 2021. After nearly a full school year, she says her students can use them to describe their thought processes. “It's really made students more aware of how they are solving problems,” she says. 

The grant project is structured as a researcher-practitioner partnership. The format puts researchers—like Her Many Horses, Sayler and Reiner—and practitioners—like Anderson—on an even playing field. Both groups work together to establish major research questions, define methodology, report on progress, and learn from the results of the research.

The project gathers student perception surveys and educator feedback. Next year, a cohort of fourth grade educators also located around South Dakota will join the pilot group. 

Her Many Horses says he wants to spread knowledge of computer science to empower small, rural communities. He sees opportunities for farmers to build sensors that monitor the pH of their soil, for ranchers to use cameras to monitor cattle movement across pastures, and for small businesses to code their own webpages, track their own data and store data privately on their own servers. 

He doesn’t want people to have to wait for someone else to invent a solution for them, then be obligated to pay for the service and share data with the service-provider.

“Everybody has an idea in their head of something they think would make lives better, but they don't know what the next step is,” Her Many Horses says. “There are so many problems in front of us that technology could solve, and I want to help people design solutions for themselves.”