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Giving HS Science a Tech Edge

Dr. Krishnan Pillaipakkamnatt works with the participating high school teachers in the Big Data Lab.

Students from six Nassau County school districts will be using computational thinking and coding to learn biology thanks to training their teachers are receiving at Hofstra University.

The professional training is part of a program to transform science education called the STEM + Computer (STEM +C) Partnership, funded by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to Hofstra in 2017.

Hofstra professors from different academic disciplines recently began working with local high school teachers to develop a computationally enhanced biology curriculum that will eventually be introduced to 8th, 9th and 10th grade students. The students will learn the fundamentals of computational thinking (solving problems using computer programming) as it applies to biology, and in the process gain valuable technological skills as they increase their proficiency in the Living Environment biology course.

The teachers are from economically and ethnically diverse districts, including Bethpage, Freeport, Massapequa, Rockville Centre, Roosevelt and Sewanhaka, which includes parts of Floral Park, Franklin Square, Elmont and New Hyde Park. The Hofstra faculty – Bret Bennington, Lian Duan, Roberto Joseph, Krishnan Pillaipakkamnatt and Stavros Valenti, are from the Departments of Geology, Environment and Sustainability; Information Systems and Analytics; Teaching, Learning and TechnologyComputer Science; and Psychology, respectively.

Dr. Bennington, who serves as professor and chair of the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability, is principal investigator on the grant.

“The teachers had no prior experience with computer programming, but in four days learned to code using a visual programming language called App Inventor,” he said. “In very little time they were creating their own apps to model topics in the biology curriculum.”

Starting in the fall, one representative from each of the participating schools will continue to work with the Hofstra team to develop a Living Environment curriculum enhanced with coding exercises. This curriculum development team, says Bennington, will provide the expertise needed to create compelling new ways to merge biology learning with computational thinking. Eventually, this group will also be responsible for helping to teach their colleagues how to incorporate the technology into their curriculum. All seventeen teachers in the project will return to the Hofstra campus throughout the duration of the project for additional workshops and training.

During the 2019-2020 school year – the second year of the grant – half the teachers will begin implementing the new curriculum, and the remainder will serve as a control group to measure student response. All participating teachers will deploy the new curriculum during 2020-2021, the final year of the grant.

“Our goal is to teach high school students how to solve problems by thinking like computer programmers,” Bennington said. “To write an app to model how, for example, DNA is transcribed into RNA and then translated into a protein molecule, you have to understand the process and break it down into its component steps. And once they create an app, students can explore more easily what would happen if there is a mutation in the DNA. Working this through on paper is extremely tedious, but developing an app is a creative way to get answers fast that also helps them understand the biology.”

The curriculum will introduce coding to students in a scaffolded manner, starting with a look under the hood of a fully functional app. Then they will work with one that has partial functionality and modify it to work better. Eventually they will write apps from scratch. “We hope the curriculum will give students a better attitude about science and computing and prompt them to consider science or computing as a career,” says Bennington.

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