Excerpts:

"To the degree that programming is found at middle schools at all, it is usually offered as after-school programs. Middle school is an essential period of life during which students, especially girls and minority students, make decisive but often unfortunate career decisions such as “science is not for me.” How can we shift middle school computer science education from isolated after-school efforts to a systemic model in which computer science is integrated into the school curriculum and taught in required classes at districtwide levels?"

"Six years ago one of our teachers decided to use AgentSheets to introduce game design as a programming activity in his regular computer education class. Previously, his class was limited to topics such as keyboarding and PowerPoint. When I visited his class for the first time, I was truly surprised. I immediately noticed a completely different participant composition. Instead of the typical single girl found in the computer club, about 50% of the students were female—there was also a large percentage of minority students. I asked students if they liked the game design activity. They did. However, many also indicated they would never have gone to a Friday afternoon computer club to do programming. One student summarized her perception of computer science as “hard and boring.” The basically universal excitement about game design in a required class suggested a strategy to simultaneously increase the exposure of student interest in computer science and broaden participation."

"With Scalable Game Design introduced to the curriculum, 10 of the 12 middle schools now offer Computational Thinking (CT) classes. Additionally, most of the students participate, resulting in an extremely high participation of girls and minority students. Out of the over 8,000 study participants, 45% are girls and 48% are minority students. In some of the larger schools we have 400 students per year per school participating. It is clear that a curriculum-integrated approach has a much higher potential for systemic impact compared to an after-school program. However, to reach this kind of exposure school districts must see direct value in CT education and find ways to integrate it into existing courses."

"We have developed a professional development program based on approximately 35 contact hours in which we train teachers to have students build their first playable game from scratch in about a week (for example, 5 lessons x 45 minutes). The ability to create a playable game is essential if students are to reach a profound, personally changing “Wow, I can do this” realization."

"While CT definitions are still somewhat forthcoming, one school director created a succinct statement of expectation—“I would want to walk up to a student participating in game design and ask: Now that you can make space invaders, can you also make a science simulation?” This question of transfer should be at the core of computational thinking education. If students learn to build a game but have no notion of how to transfer their skills into science simulations, then game design has no educational justification for being in a curriculum."

"Of all the factors we considered, scaffolding was the only significant one. Scaffolding, a pedagogical aspect indicating the degree and kind of support provided by a teacher, was assessed through classroom observation. Direct instruction, which provides a very high degree of scaffolding, highly polarized motivational levels between boys and girls. With direct instruction a teacher provides step-by-step instructions at a detailed level (for example, “click this button,” “paint the frog green”). Direct instruction is particularly unappealing to girls. With less scaffolding, such as with guided discovery, a teacher employs a more inquiry-based approach that includes classroom discussion (such as “what should we do?” and “how can we do this?”). In guided discovery, the motivational levels of girls not only approached the motivational levels of boys but often exceeded it."

"We believe we have found a systemic strategy for integrating CT education in middle schools in a way that exposes
a large number of students and is appealing to girls as well as to underrepresented students."

The full article is available via Programming Goes Back To School.