5 Ways to Bring Computational Thinking and STEM Together

STEM and Computational Thinking go together. Today’s guest is a PhD, Biomedical engineer and STEM Teacher. Stephanie Zeiger helps us see the potential of STEM and computational thinking.

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5 Ways to Bring Computational Thinking and STEM Together

Link to show: https://www.coolcatteacher.com/e290
Date: April 13, 2018

Vicki: Let’s talk about bringing computational thinking and STEM together with Stephanie Zieger. She works with science and coding at a school in Nashville, Tennessee.

So, Stephanie, what is our first way to bring computational thinking and STEM together?

Stephanie: Well, first, thanks for having me on your show. I was very excited to get contacted by you to talk about this because I’m super excited about it.

The first thing I want to say is that as teachers, you need to know that STEM and computational thinking are not exclusive. In fact, the way scientists and engineers approach problems is very similar to how a computer scientist thinks.

Scientists and engineers approach problems like programmers do

So, for example, when we look at the engineering design process… First, you’re going to identify problems, you're going to do the research and know what your constraints and criteria are, and that’s going to be something you do whether you’re designing an airplane or an app. You might need to learn some concepts to understand the problem better, but it’s very similar.

Identify problems and do research

When you go and you imagine and brainstorm to think of those solutions, you might need to break down the problem into more manageable parts before you imagine how to even solve it. This is actually called decomposition in computational thinking.

Decompose the problem before brainstorming

Next, you get to plan. Just like an engineer or a scientist, you’re planning out your experiments or designs, you’re going to design an algorithm when you are programming. That’s a step by step way to solve the problem.

Design the algorithm or create your plan

Then last, when we get into the create, test, and we redesign You get to test your design and learn what’s working, what general concept you figured out and what needs to be modified. To redesign, you have to look for those patterns, analyze the data, and figure out what’s responsible for the result. This is similar pattern recognition and abstraction computational thinking.

Create and test and analyze results

Finally, my favorite thing is when you’re coding, and you run that program and it doesn’t work, and you have to debug, you’re actually have to be learning from failure. We know as science teachers, that’s definitely something you’re doing in the science and engineering field.

Debug and modify

Vicki: Wow. So have we already gone through all five now? (laughs)

Stephanie: (laughs) We haven’t!

Vicki: (laughs) OK, so we’ve gone through four. So let’s back up a second.

So first of all, you said, STEM and computational thinking are not exclusive. So some people think, “OK, now we’re going to do science. Now we’re going to do engineering, Now we’re going to do math. And then we’re going to do coding.” So you think all of them can kind of come together, right?

Stephanie: Right. Definitely. I think with the right project design, you can actually incorporate all of these together.

We’ve had some experience with that, and what we’ve found is that it tends to get the students more excited about what they’re doing in the science class. It also really helps them feel like they can change the world when it comes to using STEM and computers.

Vicki: OK, so give me one example of bringing these together, Stephanie.

An example of computational thinking and STEM together

Stephanie: So, in one instance, one of my favorite projects we do has to do with an electricity unit in our seventh grade. We ask students to develop an interactive toy. They are “hired” (laughs) by Mattel — which is just to get them excited — to design an interactive toy.

So students work as mechanical and electrical engineers to learn about circuits, like series and parallel, current and voltage. Then they design a toy that’s going to incorporate a push button, an LED, or a motor.

What we found was that our students were like, “Oh yay! My button works! And the LED works!” But they really want a more interactive toy that does a little bit more than light up or spin. So we took the project to the next level and added in what’s called physical computing.

Now our students are using Arduinos to actually light LEDs in patterns, spin a motor to a certain degree that they want so they get more control over their toy, or actually just even play a song by changing the frequency of sound waves using a buzzer.

So the excitement of this project just grew exponentially. Our students are even more excited when they finally get through that trying things out and finally get a working toy that incorporates Arduino.

Vicki: That’s incredible. And what age are the kids?


Stephanie: This was in a seventh grade class.

Vicki: Excellent. OK, so you’ve given us an example of how STEM and computational thinking come together. That’s a fantastic example. It’s obvious that the kids have to do number two, which is planning things out.

Then number three, which is testing and learning and figuring out how to modify.

Let’s park for a second on number four. Now here is a frustration that I see a lot of teachers — or I guess a misstep — that a lot of us make. I did it at first, too. We feel like we have failed as a teacher if it doesn’t work the first time. Do you agree or not?

Stephanie: I do not agree. Are you talking about if the student’s project doesn’t work the first time?

Vicki: I’m saying that sometimes teachers tend to to feel like a failure if the student project doesn’t work the first time, but that’s not really how we should feel, is it?

Stephanie: No. Definitely not. Having been a scientist and an engineer in my previous life before teaching (laughs) I have to say that there’s more failure than success in these fields.

What you want is for student to be like, “OK. That didn’t work, so let’s see what went wrong. Let’s step back and work through it, and see how I can redesign and build a successful prototype.”

We really want to push the process, not the product. We want — even at the end of the project — we want the students to really reflect on where they started and where they ended up. They can see where they’ve grown in their learning.

As a teacher, we don’t want it to work out perfectly, because that’s no fun. The fun part is when we actually teach our students how to persevere and problem solve when things don’t work.

It’s no fun if it works out perfectly the first time

That’s where debugging comes in with computational thinking, and where in science and engineering it’s just a natural part of those types of jobs.

Vicki: Well, and I’ve seen teachers who’ve done things like, “OK, design a building, and I’m going to cause an earthquake to happen. See if you can keep it from falling down.” Or putting some stress on it, so it’s an actual competition for it, I guess, to hold up in some way.

Stephanie: Right. We do a bridge project with some of our students in our classroom. We intentionally make the bridge fail. We put on as much as we can until it breaks. The reason we do that is we want them to go back and redesign and figure out how they can improve it. That’s a very important part of the process.

I would encourage teachers to find ways for students to have projects that aren’t always going to work out perfectly, and then help model to them how they problem solve and work through that. Students tend to think failure is a bad word. In my line of work, I actually think it’s a great word. (laughs)

Vicki: So is that our fifth, to help model how to problem solve, or is it something else?

Stephanie: Well, I had some more, but… (laughs)

Vicki: OK! Give us some more!

Stephanie: (laughs) Alright!

I did want to point out that part of when you are modeling… so let’s just model… I always give an example for computational thinking. When students can realize how much STEM goes into computer generation or animation or games, they can use programming to design their own animation of a STEM concept, such as how to get to a rocket’s velocity or angle of projection accurate so that it can make it to the moon.

There are resources like code.org, CS Discovery’s curriculum, or MIT’s Scratch program that can be really useful for teachers to create a project that allows the students to express their creativity while using programming and modeling to deepen their understanding of the scientific concept.

We’ve applied this across several projects, including one that’s been done in our history classes, where the students actually wrote code to model Greek mythology (laughs) as they were learning about the gods and goddesses.

Vicki: Awesome. So we’ve talked about a lot of ways to bring computational thinking and STEM together.

Stephanie, let’s finish up with a short 30-second pitch on why these two things belong together. Why do computational thinking and STEM belong together?

Stephanie: So computational thinking and STEM belong together because they’re really going to complement each other in helping your students become more STEM knowledgeable. I want to encourage teachers that while you can see the benefits of computational thinking, you might be overwhelmed to know even where to start.

So reach out to the Computer Science Teachers Association. Membership is free! They have great resources. Just jump in. Step out of your comfort zone. Be the student, and just try to program. You’ll be amazed at how much you grow in your learning, and the new perspective you’ll have about your students as they’re learning STEM concepts.

Step out of your comfort zone

Vicki: I totally agree, because I know when I first helped kids make video games in Scratch, it scared me. I know when I first helped kids make apps, it scared me. When we first got Arduinos, it scared me.

Stephanie: (laughs)

Vicki: It’s kind of scary and nerve-wracking, but these are things you can do. So get out and try and experiment and be a creator along with your students.

Stephanie: Yes. I completely agree with that.

Contact us about the show: https://www.coolcatteacher.com/contact/

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford kymberlimulford@gmail.com

Bio as submitted

Stephanie Zeiger is an engineer and scientist that has embraced bringing the world of STEM to students of all ages. She has undergraduate degrees in nuclear engineering and a PhD in biomedical engineering where she first learned to code. As a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, she became involved in many STEM educational outreach programs and found a passion for teaching science. Today, she is an instructor with the Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth and a Harpeth Hall School science teacher where she teaches and develops STEM curriculum including multiple coding classes that emphasize computational thinking.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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