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Using Computational Thinking and Science Practices to Tell a Weighty Story

Pennsylvania Convention Center, 123

Participate and share: Interactive session
Recorded Session
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Instructional Designer
Smithsonian Science Education Center
Joao Victor Lucena is a Digital Instructional Designer and Producer in the Smithsonian Science Education Center. Victor just received his Master’s in Education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in their Learning Design Innovation Technology program. He also has a BE in Computer Science and a minor in Music from Cornell University. For the past four years, he has been an instructor at KTBYTE Lt., where he taught and developed curriculum for online computer science classes. At SSEC he has collaborated with curriculum developers to design and develop digital interactives to complement Smithsonian Science for the Classroom modules.
Senior Curriculum Developer
Smithsonian Science Education Center
Melissa Rogers is a Senior Science Curriculum Developer on the Curriculum, Digital Media, and Communications Division of the Smithsonian Science Education Center. She joined SSEC in 2017 to support the writing of the NGSS-aligned Smithsonian Science for the Classroom modules for elementary classrooms. In 2022 she developed one of the first units for the Smithsonian Science for Computational Thinking series. She has taught science and engineering at the high school, community college, and four-year college levels.

Session description

Learn about integrating computational thinking into your elementary classroom using hands-on and high-tech resources through the exploration of an upper elementary unit. Investigate conservation of mass by developing and using an experiment procedure. Tell the story of your research in a storyboard, and then an animation, programmed using Scratch.

Purpose & objective

Participants will leave this session knowing more about how to integrate computational thinking into the STEM classroom at the upper elementary level. The session will highlight the overlap between computational thinking and Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts using a new 5th grade unit as an example. Further, participants will experience using a problem to drive student learning using both sensemaking and the three dimensions of NGSS.

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Overview of pedagogy: Presentation of phenomenon- and problem-driven learning and student sensemaking (5 minutes)
Problems allow students to draw on their prior knowledge and experiences to define the problem within a situation and/or to come up with an initial solution. Students can then complete a series of activities to collect evidence. As students collect evidence, they build on their initial ideas through an iterative process of critique and revision. This iterative sensemaking process leads to a revised definition of the problem or solution to the problem.

The backpack problem: Audience sharing of initial ideas and prior experiences (5 minutes)
This section of the session will model the pedagogy as participants take on the role of students. They share their prior experiences with packing bags that they will carry. They share their initial ideas about whether the suggested approach to lighten the backpack is a viable solution.

Highlights of the A Weighty Problem unit: Hands-on investigation (10 minutes)
Participants will debug an investigation procedure and use their debugged procedure to investigate the proposed solution. They will make a claim to answer the investigation question.

Analysis of the unit: small group discussion and large group sharing (10 minutes)
Participants will analyze the unit they are experiencing to identify when students are engaged in elements of computational thinking.

Telling the story: Small group storyboarding and animation programming in Scratch (30 minutes)
Participants will work in small groups to design a storyboard that tells the story of their research, including the initial problem, how they investigated the proposed solution, and what they learned from their investigation. They will then use a custom Scratch project to program an animated version of their story.

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Supporting research

Odden, T.O., and R. Russ. 2019. Defining Sensemaking: Bringing Clarity to a Fragmented Theoretical Construct. Science Education 103, no. 1: 187-205.

Shute, V.J., C. Sun, and J. Asbell-Clarke. 2017. Demystifying computational thinking. Educational Research Review 22: 142-58. Retrieved from

Weintrop, D., E. Beheshti, M. Horn, K. Orton, K. Jona, L. Trouille, and U. Wilensky. 2016. Defining Computational Thinking for Mathematics and Science Classrooms. Journal of Science Education and Technology 25: 127–47.

Wing, J.M. 2010. Research Notebook: Computational Thinking—What and Why? The Link. Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science. Retrieved from

Yadav, A., H. Hong, and C. Stephenson. 2016. Computational thinking for all: Pedagogical approaches to embedding 21st century problem solving in K–12 classrooms. TechTrends 60, no. 6: 565-568. Retrieved from

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Session specifications

Computer science & computational thinking
Grade level:
Skill level:
Principals/head teachers, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices:
Devices required
Attendee device specification:
Smartphone: Android, iOS, Windows
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Subject area:
ISTE Standards:
For Students:
Computational Thinker
  • Students break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving.
  • Students understand how automation works and use algorithmic thinking to develop a sequence of steps to create and test automated solutions.
Creative Communicator
  • Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.