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Tinkering with Computational Thinking at ASTC

Tinkering with Computational Thinking at ASTC

Never before has computing education felt so important. As President Obama’s CS for All initiative exemplified earlier this year, educational stakeholders (from politicians to policymakers to parents to administrators to teachers to students) are recognizing the importance for all youth to be able to access computational thinking skills for both their future and the future of our country. And not just so that everyone can be a computer scientist and work in Silicon Valley. But so that everyone can if they want to while gaining the critical thinking skills necessary to create with technology in whatever their passion/interests/work, rather than be relegated to being passive consumers of other people’s creations.

This topic is particularly close to my heart. Before joining the Exploratorium, I worked closely with the Exploring Computer Science project that is focused on democratizing access to quality computer science education in all high schools. And when we said “quality,” we didn’t mean simply providing access to your typical coding or Javascript courses, but rather ensuring that all youth can experience rich computing learning that is culturally relevant and draws from diverse students’ wealth of cultural, experiential, home-based, out-of-school knowledge through hands-on inquiry-based activities.


And this is why I was particularly excited by some of the sessions that emerged out of this September’s Association of Science - Technology Centers (ASTC) conference in Tampa, Florida. There were many there who care about the educational experiences of learners of all ages in relation to technology and computing.


It was inspiring to see folks come together around the potential that tinkering and making have for teaching computational thinking. While some of the earliest computer scientists were tinkerers in their own right, the explorations of how tinkering and making today can be combined with computational thinking felt really different and new in the ways we discussed it at the conference. This happened specifically during a standing-room-only session on “Computational Tinkering” led by our very own Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich of the Tinkering Studio alongside Scratch co-creator of MIT Natalie Rusk. In this session, folks from all over the world tried out new tinkering/making prototypes that the Tinkering Studio has been creating in collaboration with MIT, Reggio Emilia, and the LEGO Foundation’s Idea Studio. With both digital and analog materials, people explored computational thinking concepts and practices (such as decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, etc.) that came to life through the heartbeat of tinkering/making that includes idea generation, design, personal expression, creativity, iteration, and more. People tinkered with Scratch Paper Experiments, Lego Art Machines, Watercolor Bot Paintings, and Scratch Light Play. Through these explorations, we ASTC conference goers were supported in thinking about how the hands-on, whimsical, creative, learner-driven aspects of tinkering and making can provide a valuable context for understanding computational thinking concepts and practices both with and without a computer. The room was energized with an excitement about what “Computational Tinkering” could be, as we begin to explore the overlap of tinkering, making, and computational thinking.




After exploring the activities, Karen, Mike, and Natalie shared about the ways they are defining Computational Tinkering. They showed a slide that described how Computational Tinkering brings together the decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms of computational thinking with tinkering’s idea generating, designing, personalizing, expressing, remixing, collaborating, questioning, reflecting, iterating, (and an audience member added the idea of “aesthetics”).  




Through these activities, really important questions surfaced about computational tinkering in museum and informal learning contexts. For example, how can you support people in bringing their different contexts and perspectives into computational tinkering activities? What could be the role of equity and narrative in computational tinkering activities? How can we emphasize the importance of aesthetics as one of the key features of computational tinkering? How do we create activities that don’t result in people just copying the examples at hand but having opportunities to get creative in drop-in learning spaces? How can we support learners and teachers alike to be comfortable not knowing the end result or the answer with computational tinkering activities?


I also attended a session about engaging learners in computational thinking activities in museum contexts. This session was not about tinkering and making, which made it an interesting contrast to the Computational Tinkering session described above. Researchers and exhibit developers from Boston’s Museum of Science and the Children’s Museum of Houston described how they were attempting to teach museum visitors about computational thinking through new exhibits, both with and without computers. Sharing research results from a current project with Pixar, The Museum of Science shared what appeared to be promising positive impacts on youth’s interest and identification with computer science after watching videos about Pixar’s behind-the-scenes work coupled with engaging in hands-on activities using computational thinking skills and practices. During this session, we had played with the hands-on and computing-based activities that both museums had brought for ASTC conference attendees to explore. These activities involved things like arranging LEGO pieces into flower field patterns using instructions that acted like lines of “code” as well as interacting with computer-based tools like OzoBlockly and Ozobot (see photos below). While these activities were hands-on and interesting, they felt qualitatively different from Computational Tinkering activities. Perhaps this was because the culmination of one’s explorations did not result in a wide array of different personalized aesthetic expressions communicating whimsy and people’s abilities to think “outside the box” in the ways that tinkerers’ light play sculptures, paper creatures, watercolor paintings, and music-making machines did in Computational Tinkering? Perhaps this is also because Computational Tinkering activity design is very specifically driven by philosophical perspectives rooted in Piaget’s Constructivism and Papert’s Constructionism, as well as learning elements outlined in the Tinkering Studio’s Learning Dimensions Framework? It will be exciting to explore how and why Computational Tinkering feels so different and new in the years to come!

At the end of this Computational Thinking (not Tinkering) session, Keith Braafladt of the Science Museum of Minnesota raised an important question: After learners have positive experiences with technology and computational thinking in museum environments, how do we support their continued learning with computational thinking if they do not have the financial resources to purchase computer technology for the home? I wonder about this for Computational Tinkering activities as well: What aspects will feel most accessible to families in low-income communities, and how do we continue to build on those features so that more children can experience the joy and depth of thinking involved in Computational Tinkering activities?


This brings me back to the idea of Computational Tinkering. I really think that we are on the brink of something really powerful through Computational Tinkering for increasing not only engagement with, but also access to high-quality learning experiences with computational thinking. And I’m not just talking about access to the computing concepts and skills youth need to know to enter the world of computer science (such as understanding loops or parallelism or conditionals, which are important too, but not the only thing Computational Tinkering has to offer). I’m also talking about the perspectives and practices of computational thinking and tinkering that support people to be inquisitive, creative, and engaged lifelong learners. I’m reminded of what a student in my research efforts through the California Tinkering Afterschool Network taught me about tinkering: She told me, there is “never really an end to tinkering” because you can always keep making your project better and better. Once you get started on creating a design or an idea for a project in Computational Tinkering, you never really want to stop. And it’s that kind of excitement and engagement to design, create, and iterate through Computational Tinkering that should be infusing students’ educational experiences every day. We should be adding that sort of sunshine to learning that fosters an interest to keep growing, and not to simply engage with ideas, skills, or concepts for the sake of a test.


That’s one of the best parts about Computational Tinkering: blending tinkering/making with computational thinking can build on the creativity/interests/knowledge that people bring to the table when they are driven to make their ideas in Computational Tinkering come to life. This can encourage new learning and engagement with computing that may not have been accessible before, in the ways computing has traditionally been taught. The months ahead will reveal where our communities of tinkerers and makers--youth, parents, teachers, informal educators, librarians, museum exhibit designers, researchers, etc.--take Computational Tinkering in their own unique and creative ways.