Jennifer Parham-Mocello
Jennifer Parham-Mocello (left), assistant professor of computer science, works with a high school student.

Oregon does not have a policy to support computer science education, even though computing jobs are the No. 1 source of all new wages in the U.S. economy, according to The Conference Board Help Wanted OnLine, which tracks labor demand.

To face this challenge, Jennifer Parham-Mocello, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, has an idea to work computer science fundamentals into the existing K-12 mathematics curriculum.

Google is supporting her idea with funding for a project to teach computational thinking — the foundation of computer programming — to future secondary math teachers studying at Oregon State. The research project is a collaboration with Elise Lockwood, associate professor of mathematics in the College of Science, and Rebekah Elliot, associate professor of mathematics education in the College of Education.

“It’s great that this Google Education K-12 grant will support educating future teachers. It’s an area that’s been ignored,” Parham-Mocello said. “Everybody wants to start new computer science courses in K-12, and I just don’t think that’s realistic, especially when you’re talking about rural areas.”

The one-year award of $141,800 will support undergraduate and graduate students over the 2019-20 school year to develop new curriculum in pre-service secondary mathematics courses at Oregon State University, then test it in Corvallis middle and high schools.  In the process, the Oregon State students will learn the basics of computational thinking, which they can apply in their future positions as teachers.

“Computational thinking helps people better understand their field. But it also makes them literate in the world of computation,” Parham-Mocello said. “When you have to think in terms of the process — the algorithmic steps — you internalize it differently and gain a deeper understanding.”

The researchers will begin teaching the curriculum in fall term to the secondary mathematics pre-service teachers. During the winter term, the pre-service teachers will develop and deliver units on computational thinking to students in Corvallis schools. The one-year project will help to define and develop a multiple-year program with broader reach.

“My vision is that all of Oregon will benefit from this,” Parham-Mocello said. “Most of the education students at Oregon State will become teachers in Oregon schools of all types. So, the impact will be broadening participation in computing for schools of all sizes in both rural and urban communities.”

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