Integrating STEM Counter-Narratives and Computational Thinking into Science Methods
Focusing on relationships, teaching, and technology mindsets
By Meg Ray
Note: Quotes from interviews edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Line Saint-Hilaire is Associate Professor of Elementary & Early Childhood Education at Queens College.
Dr. Saint-Hilaire is dedicated to addressing equity in STEM education through her research and teaching. She situates scientific thinking and engineering within cultural contexts in her teacher education courses. She understands the importance of teaching the whole child, and models that for her teacher candidates:
“I’m not training teachers, I’m training educators. Someone who can look at an individual [and think], ’I’m gonna impact their life, for the rest of their life.’”
As part of her work with CITE, she developed a number of artifacts, two of which we share here:
- An assignment that guides teacher candidates to develop a physical or digital picture book about a scientific or technological tradition within their own culture.
- A series of activities that support teacher candidates to use computational thinking practices (abstraction, pattern recognition, debugging) to solve problems and to develop activities for their learners to do the same.
Dr. Saint-Hilaire’s “Why” for CITE
Since receiving a grant to participate in CITE’s pilot initiative at Queens College in 2020, Dr. Saint-Hilaire has explored incorporating computational thinking (CT) concepts and practices (like debugging, pattern recognition, algorithms, and abstraction) in her curriculum. In that pilot work, she integrated “unplugged” CT activities into her course – activities that don’t require digital devices. She saw how those activities could support her students’ problem-solving in science.
Saint-Hilaire also appreciates getting to work closely with a small group of faculty from her department. Because they were part of the CITE project, Saint-Hilaire and her colleagues could devote time to thinking, tinkering, and iterating into their otherwise overloaded schedules. They were given the space to try something new without the demand for immediate results. This was invaluable to their learning journey.
“Just the fact that we can sit and do something. Sometimes, we [are] so busy, busy, busy, busy. We want to do 10,000 things and we have 20,000 things to do, and you know, sometimes we just don’t have that time. Being able to meet together and to think about it gives you that motivation, you know…. You are forced to produce, you know, in the midst of the business of life because we are not just scholars, we are human beings.”
Dr. Saint-Hilaire’s Context
Dr. Saint-Hilaire teaches a Methods for Science Instruction course as an Associate Professor in Early Childhood & Elementary Education at Queens College. This course focuses on how early childhood and elementary teachers can teach science in their classrooms, emphasizing incorporating scientific concepts into reading and literacy. Dr. Saint-Hilaire models a student-centered teaching approach that gives students room to explore their own cultural identities, practices, and funds of knowledge in relation to science.
She seeks to raise students’ critical awareness of their own implicit biases and how that might affect their teaching. Saint-Hilaire is constantly learning from her students and making adjustments to the course based on her reflexivity.
“..Pushing them to think about their own biases. It’s really, really hard. But you will find a couple of them will be courageous, and when you share your own biases with them, they will open up and talk about it, right?”
Dr. Saint-Hilaire’s artifact
Dr. Saint-Hilaire designed two artifacts.
Artifact 1 In A Nutshell
This artifact took the form of a series of in-class activities (discussions, peer presentations, and collaborative work time) and homework assignments that engaged teacher candidates in identifying a scientific or technological tradition within their own culture and then developing a picture book about this tradition. She hoped to help students recognize cultural traditions of science and technology beyond the standard narrative and to practice a literacy-based science teaching strategy.
Reading and conversations ABOUT STEM Concepts
Dr. Saint-Hilaire shared several books that teacher candidates (future) students might find culturally relevant. Each book reflected a STEM concept that teacher candidates were expected to explore in her course. Teacher candidates discussed the benefits of each book, made connections, and discussed how the STEM topic was addressed in the story and the representation of diverse role models within the story.
Creating picture books ABOUT STEM concepts and tech traditions
She then asked teacher candidates to create their own picture books around a STEM topic assigned by the instructor, examples included simple machines and bridges. Students identified technological traditions related to the assigned topic from their own culture. Students were given the option to produce the book by hand or to share their narrativeTHROUGH the use of digital tools such as PowerPoint. Teacher candidates were asked to share their books with each other to help them recognize the diversity of cultural funds of knowledge within the class and learn about STEM traditions in multiple cultures.
Sharing counter-narratives AGAINST dominant ways of thinking about tech
Counter-narratives in STEM deconstruct master narratives (STEM concepts and history as taught through the lens of the dominant culture (white, western, cis male, able-bodied, etc.). Counter-narratives capture the voices and stories of groups that have been marginalized in STEM. They may highlight people, cultural knowledge, and practices that have been erased from most STEM curricula. The design of this artifact introduces teacher candidates to several STEM counter-narratives through children’s picture books. It then asks teacher candidates to connect to their cultures and develop their own narratives.
Artifact 2 In A Nutshell
Dr. Saint-Hilaire also leveraged computational thinking to support her teacher candidates’ problem-solving and designing problem-based science tasks for their learners.
Solving problems WITH Computational Thinking
Dr. Saint-Hilaire presented the teacher candidates with a problem to solve embedded in a short story. She modeled using computational thinking strategies to resolve it. They decomposed the elements of the problem and looked for patterns, identifying and grouping like components. They used abstraction to eliminate extraneous components and formulated questions. Finally, they worked in groups to investigate their questions and share their recommendations for addressing the problem presented in the story.
Teaching THROUGH Creating Computational Thinking story problems
Teacher candidates were asked to develop their own problem stories based on a specific STEM topic. The faculty member then asked teacher candidates to apply the four-step computational thinking process to their own story to validate that it would work with students. Based on this attempt, teacher candidates go back and iterate on their problem story until it is suitable for classroom use.
Dr. Saint Hilaire’s Reflections
In the picture book activity, Dr. Saint Hilaire hoped that by exploring their own cultural practices related to a STEM topic, teacher candidates might gain first-hand experience with the idea of drawing on students’ funds of knowledge and their own. She also hoped teacher candidates would develop their own STEM counter-narratives.
By engaging her students in problem-solving with computational thinking, she aimed to provide a framework for teacher candidates to engage in metacognition and test and iterate their teaching materials.
Other Directions and Next Steps
Lately, Dr. Saint Hilaire has been following other leads around computing integration. A guest lecturer visited her class and introduced her students to a way to apply CT in a “plugged” context: coding with Scratch. Scratch is a programming environment that allows users to create their own digital stories, animations, games, and other projects. While Dr. Saint-Hilaire found herself frustrated by the tool, she watched her students engage deeply with it.
She knew she wanted to learn more and continue to provide her students with this opportunity. For this, Dr. Saint-Hilaire signed up for CITE 2022 PD to learn to use the digital tools that had frustrated her before.
During summer Scratch workshops that Dr. Saint-Hilaire attended, something “clicked.” She attributes this to the combination of step-by-step instruction she received during workshops with the opportunity actually to build working projects during the sessions.
“I was really frustrated because, for me, I felt overwhelmed many, many times that I couldn’t get this thing. It’s like OK, I, you know, I feel old…. But when it was done this time last summer, it was almost like teaching us all to write, like really step-by-step, very simple, very methodic. I was like, ‘Oh. Oh yeah, I can do that! This is not bad at all. I can do it.’”
Now Dr. Saint-Hilaire is more comfortable using Scratch and is also taking steps to integrate it into her teaching. She takes on the role of lead learner. She opens up to her students, letting them know that she is on her own learning journey related to computing. In this way, she models a growth mindset and fosters a classroom culture in which students choose to take risks to learn.
“I’m not coming here as the all knowing person, as an expert, and I’m willing to make myself vulnerable with them [students] and learn with them… I am showing that to them. I’m making them comfortable not knowing, thinking they are comfortable at not having the answers, getting comfortable making mistakes then readjusting. So I think that’s, that’s precious. I think that’s success.”
Next, Saint-Hilaire and her team want to study how having computational thinking and computational literacies embedded into multiple courses over time impacts pre-service teachers’ attitudes about computing and their ability to incorporate computational thinking into their own lessons. They want to continue to adjust the sequence of computational activities and concepts within their program and expand the number of courses with computational integrations by inviting more faculty into their work.
References and Resources
An earlier version of activities 1 & 2 can be found in the following paper:
Saint-Hilaire, L.A. (2013). Using writing and culture to teach science content to preservice teachers. Journal of College Science Teaching. 42(6), pp. 44-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43632155