Engineering has been integrated into K-12 learning experiences in both formal and informal settings. More recently, computational thinking (CT) has gained increased attention as an important learning outcome in K-12 settings and in engineering education. CT is a thinking process that is broader than programming and coding, and a necessary skill for every citizen to be prepared for careers in the 21st century. Additionally, CT has been described as crucial to engineering problem-solving and critical to the development of engineering habits of mind, such as systems thinking. However, not many studies have explored how children exhibit computational thinking. From this starting point, this study aims to contribute to the current body of knowledge on CT and young learners by examining children’s engagement in CT during participation in engineering and computing activities.
This study was conducted with first-grade students during a field trip to a small science center in the Midwestern, U.S. The field trip was designed to engage the children in a range of low-tech to high-tech engineering and computing activities. The activities included solving an open-ended engineering design problem by coding a developmentally appropriate robot, interacting with an engineering and CT exhibit that asked students to work on a set of problems involving, for example, building a puppy playground utilizing big blue blocks where they follow a given problem, and playing with a coding game where students code through interactive puzzles. The research question that we aim to answer is, What does children’s engagement in computational thinking competencies look like when solving different engineering and computing problems?
Twenty-one children from that first-grade class participated in this informal learning experience. However, for this work in progress, we were interested in examining children’s engagement with various CT tasks. Therefore, we conducted a case study of one group of four children that allowed us to followed a subset of students across the three activities. Using a video-analysis method, we are analyzing 60 minutes of video-recordings of this group participating in all three activities. Data analysis is still in process, but the preliminary findings indicate that during participation in the different activities, there is evidence of children engaging in seven different CT competencies including, abstraction, patterning, problem decomposition, debugging, and troubleshooting, algorithm, and procedures, use of data and simulation. When looking across the three activities, student engagement in these same competencies looked different, based on the nature of the activity. The details of the findings will be discussed in the paper.
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