Computational Expression in Early Childhood: Creative Computational Thinking in Pre-K-Second Grade

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Explore and create : Creation lab

Dr. Amanda Strawhacker  
Dr. Amanda Sullivan  
Apittha Unahalekhaka  

This session shares research from the DevTech Research Group to explore how computational thinking supports pre-K-2 learners' playful learning and expression. Participants will engage in hands-on play with the KIBO robot and ScratchJr coding app, and may win a copy of DevTech’s new book on computational thinking.

Audience: Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS
Participant accounts, software and other materials: ScratchJr
Topic: Computer science & computational thinking
Grade level: PK-2
Subject area: Computer science, Performing/visual arts
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Stay current with research that supports improved student learning outcomes, including findings from the learning sciences.
  • Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.
For Students:
Creative Communicator
  • Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.

Proposal summary

Purpose & objective

- Introduce PreK-2nd grade educators to developmentally-appropriate robotics and coding platforms
- Demonstrate robotics and coding activities proven to support students’ learning and play with computational thinking concepts at a level fitting their early stages of development
- Promote the benefit of incorporating STEAM, technology, and robotics across multiple subjects as an effective way to support diverse student self-expression and communication
- Share evidence-based recommendations and resources to guide decisions about how to select developmentally-appropriate coding tools and activities for PreK-2 learning settings.

- Participants will be able to incorporate coding and robotics into their existing PreK-2nd grade curricula/activities through interdisciplinary STEAM projects.
- Participants will learn how to effectively engage students in playful self-expression and idea-sharing through creative coding projects that incorporate music, dance, and performing arts
- Participants will learn about proven models of STEAM education and pedagogy to support computational thinking and computational expression in their PreK-2nd grade learners.
- Participants will be able to identify which features of educational robots and coding activities are most developmentally-appropriate for early childhood


The outline of this session will comprise of the following:

(1) 20-minute lecture presentation
- 5-minute Intro: Welcome, introduce core ideas of session and get to know the presenters
- 15-minute presentation by Tufts’ Developmental Technologies Research Group
-- Discuss computational thinking, how to recognize it in young children’s play, and how it can support children’s STEAM learning
-- Highlight Computational Thinking book from DevTech, and specifically share findings from Introduction, Computational Expression chapter, and Learning Analytics chapter, including evidence-based trends in children's use of technologies and associated pedagogical frameworks and constructs.
-- Share examples from research studies of ways that children can engage in holistic self-expression and communication skills through robotic and coding activities that incorporate music, dance, and performing and visual arts.
-- Discuss the process of creating artistic and expressive STEAM activities and incorporating them into a larger curriculum seamlessly.
-- Share strategies for incorporating a range of disciplinary domains (e.g. arts and culture, civics, social studies) into STEAM explorations with PreK-2nd grade students.
(2) 25-minute hands-on activities: Attendees will have the opportunity to try out two robotics/coding platforms at different stations.
- KIBO Station:
-- Overview of KIBO robot, highlighting its developmentally appropriate screen-free design, and demonstrating how to build and program a simple robot.
-- Hands-on KIBO play to explore visual arts, crafting, dance, and movement activities
- ScratchJr Station:
-- Overview of ScratchJr application, highlighting its playful text-free visual interface, and demonstrating how to program a simple animation or story.
-- Hands-on ScratchJr play to explore animation, music, and storytelling activities.
(3) 15-minute Q&A, resource share, and raffle giveaway of books.
- Attendees will share their experience with the coding activity stations, provide feedback on the activities, and ask any questions they may have
- Audience members will have a chance to win limited copies of the Computational Thinking book explored throughout the session, including chapters on other ways to incorporate computational thinking in early childhood settings (e.g. no-tech/unplugged, assessments, etc.).

Supporting research

- Bers, M. (Ed.). (2021). Teaching Computational Thinking and Coding to Young Children. IGI Global. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-7308-2
- Sullivan, A., & Strawhacker, A. (2021). Screen-Free STEAM: Low-Cost and Hands-on Approaches to Teaching Coding and Engineering to Young Children. In S. Garvis & C. Cohrssen (Eds.), Embedding STEAM in Early Childhood Education and Care (pp. 87-113). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
- Sullivan, A A. (2019) Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood. Rowman & LIttlefield.
- Bers, M.U. (2018). Coding as a Playground - Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom. Routledge.
- Sullivan, A., Strawhacker, A., & Bers, M.U. (2017). Dancing, drawing, and dramatic robots: Integrating robotics and the arts to teach foundational STEAM concepts to young children. In Khine, M.S. (Ed.) Robotics in STEM Education: Redesigning the Learning Experience. (pp. 231-260). Springer Publishing.
- Kazakoff, E.R. & Bers, M.U. (2014). Put your robot in, Put your robot out: Sequencing through programming robots in early childhood. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 50(4).
- Kazakoff, E., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M.U. (2013). The effect of a classroom-based intensive robotics and programming workshop on sequencing ability in early childhood. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(4), 245-255.
- Pugnali, A., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M.U. (2017) The Impact of User Interface on Young Children’s Computational Thinking. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 16, 172- 193.
- Elkin, M., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M.U. (2016). Programming with the KIBO Robotics Kit in Preschool Classrooms. Computers in the Schools, 33:3, 169-186.
- Sullivan, A., & Bers, M.U. (2015). Robotics in the early childhood classroom: Learning outcomes from an 8-week robotics curriculum in pre-kindergarten through second grade. International Journal of Technology and Design Education. Online First.

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Dr. Amanda Strawhacker, Tufts University, ECT Graduate Program

Amanda is the Associate Director of the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate Program at Tufts University. Her research involves engaging children in playful learning with novel technologies, and supporting childcare professionals in fostering children’s early STEM experiences. Prior to her role at ECT, Amanda was a Ph.D. student at the DevTech Research Group, where she contributed to the research and development of several technologies including the ScratchJr programming app, the KIBO robotics kit, two early childhood makerspaces, and the CRISPEE bioengineering kit. She is a two-time winner of the Eliot-Pearson Research-Practice Integration Award, and was a speaker with TEDxYouth@BeaconStreet.

Dr. Amanda Sullivan, Tufts University

Dr. Amanda Sullivan is a researcher, educator, and author who focuses on the impact of new technologies on young children. She is passionate about engaging girls in STEM and EdTech from an early age. Amanda is the co-creator of the ScratchJr Coding Cards: Creative Coding Activities for Children Ages 5-7 (No Starch Press) and author of the book Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood (Rowman & Littlefield). She is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Technology Graduate Certificate Program at Tufts University and an Associate Faculty member in the College of Doctoral Studies at the University of Phoenix.

Apittha Unahalekhaka, Tufts University

Apittha (Aim) Unahalekhaka is a doctoral student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and a graduate researcher at the DevTech Research Group. Her current research focuses on the usage of data science for early childhood education and the applications of learning analytics in classroom settings, particularly how children’s engagement patterns with ScratchJr relate to their computational thinking and learning outcomes. Her interests include socio-emotional learning, constructionism, adaptive instructional system, and machine learning.

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