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Project to Promote Digital Literacy and Computer Science in K-12 Education Receives UMass REBLS Network Grant

Neena Thota
Neena Thota

Neena Thota, associate chair of teaching development and senior teaching faculty at the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), is part of a team led by Ray Laoulache, dean of academic affairs at UMass Dartmouth, that is exploring ways to promote digital literacy and computer science (DLCS) for middle school students, with an emphasis on girls from underrepresented groups. 

The current phase of the project involves developing a DLCS curriculum in alignment with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's (DESE) existing curriculum, focusing on their overarching goal of building students’ computational thinking skills, while highlighting the connections between science and computer science.

The curriculum will be based on Foldit, a free online biochemistry crowdsourcing computer game that allows participants to contribute to scientific research involving protein folding, such as disease cures or the development of more efficient biofuels. Guided by two undergraduate mentors and five high school assistants, the K-12 students taking part in the curriculum will receive guidance from and interact with older peers, who will additionally facilitate the Foldit activities. 

“We think there’s real potential for using this tool, and others like it, to teach scientific and computational thinking at the middle school level,” explains Thota, who will prepare curriculum evaluation materials that will be tailored to this program and develop a mentoring plan.

In addition to Laoulache and Thota, the project team includes curriculum developers Firas Khatib, associate professor of computer and information science at UMass Dartmouth, and two Massachusetts K-12 teachers—Danielle Bodine of Waltham Public Schools and Deborah Boscombe of Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School. 

The project has received a seed grant from the REBLS Network, an organization based at the UMass Institute of Diversity Sciences, created through a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Its mission is to increase diversity in STEM in Massachusetts through the development of research-practice partnerships connecting institutions, industry, academic researchers, and educators.

Read more about the project: Fostering Interest in Computer Science & Its Applications in Middle School Students: Institute of Diversity Sciences

REBLS has also provided seed grants this year to “GaleForce: Interesting Girls in Robotics Learning through an Emergency Management Online Adventure Game,” and “Building Stronger Education Pathways through Peer Mentoring for Underrepresented Students in the Pioneer Valley and the SouthCoast.” REBLS collaborates on other projects with stakeholders from high schools and community colleges across the state, as well as the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs, Boston Museum of Science, Girls, Inc. of the Valley, and several technology and engineering industry partners.

Thota is senior teaching faculty and associate chair of teaching development at CICS, and a member of the UMass Amherst Advanced Learning Technologies Lab. Her research interests are in computing education research, educational technologies, learning and assessment taxonomies, and methodological frameworks for research. Recently, she was part of a team led by Florence Sullivan of the UMass Amherst College of Education that received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for their research project on developing a culturally sustaining assessment tool for computational thinking in early grades.