CAREER: Blocks, Stickers, and Puzzles: Rethinking Computational Literacy Experiences in Informal Environments

Project: Research project

Project Details


A recent report by the Association for Computing Machinery estimates that by decade’s end, one out of every two STEM jobs in the United States will be in computing (ACM, 2014). And yet, participation rates of women and underrepresented minority groups in post-secondary computer science programs remain discouragingly and persistently low (Taulbee Survey, 2013). One of the most powerful takeaway messages from Margolis and Fisher’s groundbreaking book, Unlocking the Clubhouse (2003), is the degree to which informal experiences with computers (at many ages and in many settings) shape young people’s trajectories through high school and into undergraduate computer science degree programs, and the extent to which students draw on the wealth of these experiences to persist in college and move on to successful careers in computing. Just as early language and mathematics literacy begins at home and is reinforced throughout childhood through a variety of experiences both in school and out, this proposal argues that for reasons of diversity and competency, we cannot rely on formal experiences with computational literacy alone to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, and citizens. This project will develop a theoretically grounded approach to fostering informal computational literacy experiences for youth from pre-K to 5th grade and beyond. Working with key strategic partners the PI and his team will design and study experiences in three types of informal learning environments: homes, museums, and out-of-school programs. In all three cases, the key challenges to diversity and the core metrics of success will be voluntary engagement, motivation, and persistence. This is in stark contrast to schools and other formal learning programs where participation is obligatory and key outcomes are measured in terms of academic performance (NRC, 2011). The efforts outlined in this proposal adopt a unifying design framework that places particular emphasis on youth identity formation in relation to personal experiences, social relationships, and existing cultural narratives (Falk, 2006; Horn, 2013; Stevens et al., 2007; Nasir et al., 2014). This framework will be valuable for identifying design factors that motivate and inspire the participation of youth from groups underrepresented in STEM fields. The project builds on a wealth of related prior work as well as a decade of experience by the PI in designing and studying computational literacy experiences across a range of informal environments. This work has included the development of interactive museum exhibits (Horn et al., 2012; Horn et al., 2014a), innovative in-home activities (Horn et al., 2014b; Horn et al., 2014c), and summer camp programs (Horn et al., 2012). The PI will be advised by a board of international leaders in computational literacy including Uri Wilensky, Marina Bers, PENDING, and PENDING. Finally, the integrated education plan would create new opportunities for undergraduate and graduate-level study of a variety of computational literacy issues.
Effective start/end date6/1/155/31/20


  • National Science Foundation (DRL‐1451762-004)


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