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Partnering Education and Engineering Students With 5th Graders to Enhance Computational Thinking

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Lecture presentation

Friday, December 4, 2:00–2:45 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 2 of 2
Other presentations:
3D Printed Artifacts and PBL Bring STEM and Social Studies to Life

Dr. Jennifer Kidd  
Sam Sacks  
Dr. Krishna Kaipa  
Rose Padilla  
Sean Drew  

This research study describes an NSF-funded teacher preparation experience intended to increase PSTs’ computational thinking skills and self-efficacy. PSTs in an educational technology course and undergraduate engineering students in computational methods partnered to create robotic lessons for fifth and sixth grade students in an after-school technology club.

Audience: Teacher education/higher ed faculty, Principals/head teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Teacher education
Grade level: Community college/university
Subject area: STEM/STEAM, Preservice teacher education
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Collaborate and co-learn with students to discover and use new digital resources and diagnose and troubleshoot technology issues.
  • Dedicate planning time to collaborate with colleagues to create authentic learning experiences that leverage technology.

Proposal summary


This research draws on constructionism (Papert, 1980) and social constructivism (Piaget, 1985; Vygotsky, 1980) in the design of the intervention, and social learning theory (Bandura, 1993) for evaluating its impact. Papert (1980) believed that CT should be taught using a constructionist approach, where students build programming expertise through creation of artifacts. Whereas many activities designed to teach beginning coding skills focus exclusively on manipulating software to control the movement of objects, especially virtual objects, robotics requires the manipulation of software and hardware components to create and control physical objects, and in this way, is a better match for Papert’s vision.
According to social constructivism, cross-disciplinary collaboration prompts students to experience new and different perspectives as they build knowledge (Piaget, 1985). Education and engineering students traditionally have few opportunities to interact academically, yet mutual goals make their collaboration beneficial. Engineers and educators alike design for specific audiences and need to understand the needs of their clients in order to perform effectively. The cooperation of both groups is also needed to address the nation-wide goal of broadening participation in STEM. The collaboration between EUSs and PSTs in this study provided an opportunity for peer learning (Boud, Cohen & Sampson, 2014), both through knowledge exchange and group problem solving. The PSTs started with greater comfort and familiarity working with FSGs, while the UESs had greater comfort and familiarity with programming and the mechanisms employed to articulate the robots’ movements. The students had to combine their expertise to teach FSGs about robotics, specifically how to build and program a robot.
This study examined whether learning and teaching through robotics contributed to PSTs’ coding knowledge and self-efficacy. Bandura’s theory suggests that self-efficacy, or “people’s beliefs about their capabilities” (p. 118), is developed from social experiences and self-perception, and is influential in determining outcomes. The social experience of teaching a lesson prompts teachers to reflect on their efficacy and therefore has significant potential to influence self-efficacy. A teacher’s content knowledge (Swackhamer et al., 2009), belief in a subject’s importance (Yasar et al., 2006), and successful lesson implementation (Fogg-Rogers et al., 2017; Rich et al., 2017) have been found to contribute to teacher self-efficacy. Teacher self-efficacy has also been linked to willingness to adopt innovative teaching strategies (Tschannen-Moran & McMaster, 2009), intention to use technology (Teo, 2009), and improved student performance (Caprara et al., 2006), and may therefore play a role in teachers’ interest in and ability to integrate engineering and CT into their teaching.
There is growing evidence that robotics improves elementary students’ STEM learning (Rogers & Portsmore, 2004), and CT development specifically (Bers et al., 2014). A few studies have examined PSTs’ implementation of robotics lessons (e.g. Kim et al., 2017). However, investigations of how robotics influences PSTs’ CT skills are only beginning to appear (Jaipal-Jameni & Angeli, 2017). As the call for CT integration is embraced by states across the nation, there is a need for research to identify the best methods to equip teachers with the skills and desire to teach CT. Likewise, there is a corollary need to understand how teacher education can prepare PSTs to competently and confidently integrate CT. Studies exploring the links between robotics-based pedagogy and PSTs’ ability and interest in coding are one piece in this puzzle. Examining the feasibility of partnering PSTs with UESs to explore robotics with 5th and 6th graders is another. This study explored the following research questions:

How did collaborating with UESs to learn and teach robotics impact PSTs’ coding knowledge and coding self-efficacy?
What were PSTs’, UESs’, and FSGs’ perceptions of the value of the project?


Participants & Context. Eight PSTs in an educational technology course and 28 UESs in a computational methods course participated in an interdisciplinary collaboration. The course meeting times overlapped for 75 minutes a week enabling students to work collaboratively. Each PST was partnered with three UESs to form teams that engaged in five collaborative activities over the course of the semester. In the first activity, UESs taught PSTs about Sphero robots and the programming concept of a loop. The UESs had learned about the Spheros in the previous week in their course. In the second activity, PSTs and UESs used LEGO WeDo kits to build and code an animal robot. In this case, neither group had used the resources beforehand; the intention was for them to learn collaboratively. Following these initial training activities, the teams planned how to engage FSGs in a similar activities and added details to 5E lesson plans (Bybee et al., 2006) developed by the instructor. Three further collaborative activities occurred during an after-school club for FSGs. Seventeen FSGs participated in the club.
Three robotics lessons were taught by the teams of PSTs and UES. Although three UESs were paired with each PST, it was decided that only one UES would partner with the PST for each robotics lesson to minimize the number of people who would attend each club session. The first two lessons for the FSGs mirrored the activities completed by the college students, using Sphero and LEGO WeDo. The third lesson was part of a larger robotics project. The robotics project was to design, build, and program an animal robot using household (e.g. cardboard boxes, straws) and technical components (servo motor, speaker, LEDs). The groups coded Arduinos using mBlock (a Scratch derivative) to create mobility, sound, and light. A UES from each team helped guide the physical construction of the robot, assisting in particular with the design of mechanisms that actuated servo motors to articulate robotic appendages. All 8 PSTs, 20 UESs participated, and seventeen FSGs participated in the research (see Table 1).

Methods & Measures. This research utilized mixed methods (Creswell & Clark, 2007). Two quantitative pre/post instruments were used: a survey for assessing PSTs’ coding self-efficacy (Rich et al., 2017) and a CT quiz adapted from two established instruments (Shen, 2017; Zur Bargury et al., 2013). Fourteen code-agnostic multiple-choice items and one short-answer question assessed CT concepts (sequencing, looping, variables, conditionals, and debugging) aligned with Virginia’s CS standards.
Three qualitative measures were used: individual student reflections completed by PSTs and UESs after the implementation of their robotics lessons at the after school technology club, an end-of-course PST focus group, and two focus groups for FSGs conducted during their final after school club meeting. The reflections used open-ended prompts to help students describe what they were teaching, the roles they played during the lesson, what they felt most/least confident about, their lesson’s success, and what they learned from the experience. The PSTs’ focus group called for them to discuss their interest in coding and engineering, plans to integrate these subjects, and whether they felt confident in their ability to do so. It asked whether coding and engineering were valued by students, parents, and administrators and how the PSTs supported the creation of the animal robots. The FSGs’ focus group asked the children about their conception of and interest in engineering, whether engineering should be included in their classroom instruction, and their perceptions of the benefits of participating in the club.
T-tests were used to compare participants’ pre- and post- scores on the CT quiz. Grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006) was used to identify emergent themes, especially those related to PSTs’ coding knowledge, self-efficacy, and perceptions of the project. Two researchers coded a selection of student reflections. Resulting themes were reviewed until consensus was reached. The same process was used to code the focus groups.


There was a significant difference in coding knowledge for PSTs’ pre- and post- test (t = -2.553, p = .038). The mean increased from 5.75 (SD = 2.31) to 6.88 (SD = 3.23). No significant difference was found for UESs (pretest M=10.47, SD = 2.83; posttest M = 10.79, SD = 2.82). The UESs scored significantly better than PSTs (F = 9.983, p = .004). PSTs performed best on items assessing sequencing and loops. They struggled on questions incorporating spatial reasoning, and on items assessing conditionals, especially when calculations or comparators were included. UESs performed well across all coding concepts with the exception of two questions, missed by almost all students (see Fig 2), requiring students to envision a coordinate system and engage in algebraic thinking to determine a sprite’s movement. PSTs showed the greatest improvement coding a robot to turn at right angles and using a loop to form a square (see Figures 2 & 3), activities that were explicitly covered in the Sphero lesson. There was also a significant increase in PSTs’ coding self-efficacy from pre-test (M = 2.65, SD = .28) to post-test (M = 3.23, SD = .96): t = -2.824, p = .026).

Six major themes emerged from PSTs’ qualitative data (see Table 2). Affective responses (slightly more negative than positive) were the most prevalent. Remaining themes described what PSTs learned, how they learned, the roles they played during the lessons, and the value they ascribed to the project and coding more broadly. The data suggests PSTs learned about programming from their engineering partners and from teaching, but did not feel confident with coding, and felt unprepared to lead FSGs in robotics activities. Some PSTs discussed leading coding activities, but more PSTs reported deferring to engineering partners to explain coding concepts and answer coding-related questions.

The UESs’ data revealed similar themes (see Table 3), however, UESs’ affective comments were generally positive, recounting the enjoyment they experienced interacting with FSGs. The UESs were split on how the project influenced their coding knowledge: half reported the project enhanced their understanding, while the other half reported little to no benefit. However, many UESs reported gaining communication and collaboration skills through interacting with PSTs and FSGs.

Following the completion of the after-school program, 15 FSGs participates in focus group discussions. Five major themes emerged (see Table 4). They perceived positive effects from participating in the program, including personal and academic skills and gaining an appreciation for engineering. The FSGs acknowledged positive changes in their conceptions of engineering and reported a desire to see engineering integrated into PK-12 curricula. Suggestions for improvement of the after-school program experience was also another theme, with recommendations for more time and/or slower pacing across the program activities and requests for increased interaction with practicing engineers. One last notable theme was the prevalence of snacks in the discussions, with 15 instances of FSGs engaging in tangents or extended conversations of snacks as they pertained to the after-school program experience.

(Unable to paste tables into submission form)
Table 1. Participant Demographics

Table 2. PST Focus Group & Reflection Themes
Theme, Frequency, Dominant Sub-themes (# of coded instances) & Illustrative Quote

Affective Responses (109)
Negative (62): Lack of Confidence (38), Unprepared (18), Unsuccessful (6)

“It helped me get a bit more comfortable with the idea of it, but at the same time though, I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching it on my own.”

“I was not very confident in much of the lesson. I was very unprepared on what information to share and how to share it with my students.”

Positive (47):
Confidence (16), Successful (15), Fun & Enjoyment (9), Partially Successful (7)

“I felt really confident in delivering the lesson and my ability to explain the concepts of looping and angles.”

“I think it was very effective just by how much they progressed in the one session we did with them. They could not make a square when they first came in, but by the end they could make any shape they wanted and put on as many personalized items as they wanted.”

What PSTs Learned (65)
About Coding (42):
How to Code & Control Robot (21), Applications of Coding (10), Underlying Concepts (6), Connection Between Math or Science Concepts & Coding (4), Troubleshooting (1)

“I learned from this lesson how to use MBlock and the Arduinos to code things such as movement, lights or even music. I could possibly use those if I decide to teach Engineering in my classroom.”

About Teaching (23):
Lesson Preparation (9), Lesson Delivery/Interacting with Students (8), Students’ Prior Knowledge of/Ability to Learn Coding (6)

“Prep work is very important! Get the most knowledge that you can about a lesson and figure out the most effective way to deliver it. Also understand that it’s important to just do the best that you can, there’s no such thing as perfection.”

How PSTs Learned (41)
From Engineering Partner (17), Teaching & Learning with Students (16), From Students (3), Prior Knowledge (3), Through Preparation (2)

“He taught me concepts about coding that I didn't know before and when I didn’t understand them still he would explain them in a different way.”

“As my student was learning, I was learning. We were putting in random pieces of coding and guessing on what they were going to do.”

Importance of Technology & Coding (35)
Positive Statements (17), Uncertain About Student & Parent Interest (11), Impact on FSG Knowledge (7)

“I feel like it’s important to learn at least a little bit of it since everything is now becoming technology based.”

“Parents seem to want to dial that back. When we’re talking to them they’re like ‘I don’t want to go on any kind of technology at home’ and stuff, but the schools seem to integrate it a little more”
PSTs’ and UESs’ Roles During the Lessons with FSGs
Engineers Teaching Coding & Technical Content (17), PSTs Actively Teaching Coding (7), PSTs in Support Role (6), PSTs Letting Students Figure it Out (2)

“He taught the majority of the lesson because we felt he was better at explaining the concepts. I interjected as necessary.”

Perceived Value (28)
Overall Project - Positive (20), Negative (8)
“[The WoW Club] was very demanding but it was also very rewarding”

Table 3. UES Reflection Themes
Theme, Frequency, Dominant Sub-themes (# of coded instances) & Illustrative Quote

Affective Responses (38)
Positive (30) - e.g. Satisfied with Outcome, Enjoyed Interacting with Kids, Confidence

“They were very intelligent kids and I enjoyed sharing some engineering information with them. I was glad to see youth interested in science and mathematical aspects of the world around us.”

Negative (8) - e.g. Lack of Confidence, Difficulty

“I felt least confident on how to engage the students with coding.”

Roles (33)
UES Actively Instructing (9), UES in Support Role (8)

“My role in teaching the lesson was to ask and answer engineering related questions and to engage the students in engineering thought processes.”

PST Actively Instructing (8), PSTs Planning and Supporting the Lesson (8)

“My partner (the PST) was teaching the students while I (the UES) was supporting the lessons they were teaching. I was satisfied with this because I am more comfortable supporting than teaching.”

Development of Professional Skills (22)
Interdisciplinary Communication (13), Teamwork or Interpersonal Skills (9)

“I learned how to break down complicated problems and how to use simpler terms instead of engineering specific jargon.”

Perceived Value (17)
Positive (16), Negative (1)

“I think that the students got a lot out of the lesson because the were engaged, enthusiastic, and were picking up the material quickly.”

Impact on Understanding of Coding (16)
Little to No Benefit (7), Enhanced Understanding (6), Reinforced Understanding (3)

“Because it was for 5th/ 6th grade students, the material was very basic so what we were teaching is already an area I am confident in.”

“I felt like I understand the concepts more because I had to think of it in different ways in order to teach the student.”

Table 4. PSTs’ Understanding of the Student-Teacher Relationship
Sentiment, Quotation, Willingness to Learn From FSGs

I need some more practice. I am looking forward to having the kids show me how they implemented the servo motor

Traditional Notion of Teacher as Expert
As my student was learning, I was learning. We were putting in random pieces of coding and guessing on what they were going to do. I tried to do a repeat/loop of a square that was not successful at all. I did not know enough and my student did not learn enough, and that was my fault.

Table 5. FSG Focus Groups Themes
Theme, Frequency, Dominant Sub-themes (# of coded instances) & Illustrative Quote

Perceived benefits of the program (36)
Skill Development (16), Personal Development (8), Appreciation for Engineering (6)

“Alright, so I think it really helped me in my team building skills.” - Cody, white male, 5th grader

“But I also learned that, um, one of the things is that teamwork is very important and collaborating, ‘cus if you don’t collaborate then you guys both go in different directions and that just causes a mess.” - Carly, White female, 6th grader

“When I look at buildings like their structure and how they’re built, I sort of realize how much time they put into it and how much work they have to put into making everything. And, like, the art of doing it and it's just so many things in the back of it that you don’t understand until you learn about it.” - Carly, White female, 6th grader

Change in Conceptions of Engineers/Engineering (27)
Change in Understanding (12), Engineering as Hands-on (11), Fields (3)

“I thought they were a bunch of grumpy people. I always thought they were those mechanics who are just like, old.” - Andrew, White male 6th grader

“Well, today there is a lot more advances so it’s very important to be able to understand how engineering works so you can use it in your daily life. You can’t always rely on someone, you need to do it yourself sometimes.” - Carly, White female 6th grader

“They can have multiple types of jobs so I sort of learned more about their jobs and they seem really nice.” - Carly, White female 6th grader

Integration of Engineering into PK-12 Curricula (28)
Positive (25), Mixed (2), Negative (1)

“...we’ll need a lot more engineers, and I think it should be one of the core classes.” - Taylor, Black female 6th grader

“ can make the kids or students have hands on experience.” - Trevion, Black male 5th grader

Suggestions for improvement (18)
Fast pacing/need for more time (6), more interaction with engineers (2)

“So, like, my group we didn't have enough time to make our videos, so maybe have class like 2 times a week ‘cus we didn't have enough time.” - Jada, Black female, 5th grade

“I would like to have more engineers there. Because the teachers who knew what to do, well, the engineers would like help us more with them because they came only twice. And it would be fun if they were, like, there most of the time.” Carly, white female, 6th grade

Snacks (15)
“I got to eat really good cookies. I could eat as many cookies as I wanted without my parents saying no to me.” - Jasmine, 6th grader

(Unable to paste figures)

Figure 1. CS Quiz Items missed by the majority of PSTs and UESs

Figure 2. CS Quiz Item on which PSTs improved (#1)

Figure 3. CS Quiz Item on which PSTs improved (#2)


Discussion & Scholarly Significance
The emergence of coding in elementary school standards is new and the effort to prepare PSTs to teach coding is in its infancy. While some research has addressed how to prepare teachers to teach coding, more needs to be learned. This study explored three intertwined approaches to preparing teachers to integrate coding into their future instruction: 1) pairing PSTs with UESs, 2) engaging PSTs in robotics activities, and 3) providing PSTs with opportunities to teach robotics lessons to 5th and 6th grade students. The goal of the intervention was to improve PSTs’ coding knowledge and self-efficacy with the expectation that an increase in skills and confidence would enhance the likelihood that PSTs would teach coding in their future classrooms. In addition, the researchers hoped the intervention would have positive benefits for cooperating UESs, reinforcing their coding knowledge, and enhancing their ability to interact with non-technical audiences. Finally, it was hoped that the FSGs would also perceive benefits from participation and early exposure to such activities could help increase students’ interest in STEM fields.
Research on this intervention will continue. Findings suggest that PSTs benefit from interacting with UESs, however, it is not yet clear how to structure these collaborations so PSTs gain both coding knowledge, and the confidence to operate independently of their engineering partners. Robotics as a vehicle for promoting CT has documented success and aligns well with Papert’s constructivist ideology. It also engages the students in an engineering design process, thereby addressing newly adopted state (VDOE, 2018) and national standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Moreover, the PSTs reported enjoying the animal robot project and seeing benefits for the FSGs. Nevertheless, the technologies used in the project (Arduino, servo motors, LEDs) represent a significant learning curve for PSTs, especially when compared to online coding resources like Scratch and It remains unclear whether physical computing enhances or impedes the development of PSTs’ coding knowledge and self-efficacy. Teaching engineering and computing lessons led to gains in teacher self-efficacy in this study and prior studies (Kidd et al., 2019; Rich et al., 2017). PSTs reported a willingness to learn from the FSGs but may have had trouble letting go of traditional notions of the teacher as the exclusive expert in the classroom, and the belief that they need to show the students how to code (see Table 4). More coding instruction may be needed to help PSTs feel better prepared.
In addition to the implementation concerns mentioned above, there are concerns about instrumentation. It is unclear whether a quantitative measure of CT is the best tool to assess PSTs’ readiness to engage students in coding activities. Isolating and assessing coding concepts in a platform-agnostic measure is challenging. CT skills build on each other. Many test items relied on spatial reasoning (Román-González et al., 2017), an ability associated with I.Q. tests. A recent study found that while PSTs’ prior knowledge of coding, interest in coding, and apprehension for teaching coding did not predict their success learning coding, their SAT math, verbal, and writing scores did (Penny et al. , 2019). PSTs participating in the study (77%) were able to successfully complete a coding exercise in the coding environment they were taught, however, far fewer (23%) were able to abstract the coding concepts and solve a similar task in a new coding environment. Similarly, the PSTs in this study expressed frustration moving from one block coding application to another and wanted to learn specific commands associated with each application to teach the students. While familiarity with specific command terminology within a platform (e.g. “wait” vs “delay”) is helpful for coding efficiently, someone familiar with coding concepts should be able to navigate a new block coding platform without significant issue. ISTE (2011) suggests that CT includes dispositional components, including confidence dealing with complexity, persistence working with difficult problems, tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to deal with open ended problems. PSTs may struggle to embrace these belief systems. More work is needed to determine what knowledge, skills, and dispositions PSTs need to integrate coding, and the best measures to assess these competencies. In the meantime, the findings of this study suggest there is potential in pairing PSTs with UESs, engaging PSTs in robotics activities, and providing PSTs with opportunities to teach robotics lessons to 5th and 6th grade students. More research is needed to determine the ideal structure for the intervention in order to maximize the learning benefits from the collaboration while cultivating PST confidence to act independently from their UES partners.


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Dr. Jennifer Kidd, Old Dominion University
Sam Sacks, Savannah Chatham County Public Schools

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