Researchers Aim to Increase Diversity in STEM By Supporting K-12 Teachers

a teacher at a laptop and a student at a desktop, both workingPhilippa, a student at South Fayette Middle School, has hopes of becoming a doctor someday. She also likes history. Math, too.

And she’s not the only one in her class with lots of interests.

“Last year, I was really into math. This year, I’m really into language arts,” said Charlotte, one of Philippa’s classmates. “I also like woodworking. It’s really fun to do.”

This school year, Philippa and Charlotte are taking an industrial technology class—a mandatory course for seventh graders at South Fayette. Twice a week, they’re coding and working in small groups to create an app through a program called App Inventor.

PASmart Grant

To support this research, Quigley received a PASmart Grant of $500,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for her project titled “STEAM Studio Model for Innovation: Building Robust Learning Ecologies and Pathways in Computer Science.”

Also on the grant: Principal Investigator Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation with South Fayette Township School District; Dani Herro, associate professor at Clemson University’s College of Education and Quinn Burke, senior research scientist at Digital Promise.

The schools in the research component of the grant are South Fayette School District, Manchester Academic Charter, Allegheny K-5, Beechwood Elementary School and Brownsville School District.

The reality is, people like Philippa and Charlotte are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A 2018 study led by the National Girls Collaborative Project found that women make up just 28% of the science and engineering workforce.

“We’re creating what’s called vertical alignment: trying to create a pathway from K-12 where every child will have an experience with computer science skills called computational thinking. My role in this is the research component—seeing what works and what doesn’t,” said Cassie Quigley, associate professor in Pitt’s School of Education. “We’re looking, in particular, at girls and students of color because those groups tend to be left out in computer science in huge numbers.”A University of Pittsburgh researcher is working to move the needle to increase diversity in STEM fields. Cassie Quigley, who was also named a PA STEM Ambassador in 2019, is conducting research with the support of a PASmart grant to integrate computer science opportunities in schools and create more diversity in the field, under an initiative launched by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

In Philippa and Charlotte’s industrial technology class, and in more than 30 other classrooms in Western Pennsylvania, Quigley is conducting research to measure how students are engaging and working collaboratively when they’re completing computer science projects—and looking at the roles that gender plays when the students get together in groups and create their apps.

“One thing we’ve already started noticing is that boys, most of the time, take on the role of being the coder, and girls take on the role of being the scribe,” said Quigley. “That’s something we’re already giving feedback to the teachers to say, perhaps, instead of allowing kids to choose their roles, you can require them to try different roles so they can develop confidence in things outside their comfort zone.”

two female students working at computers

Creating a rubric

To aid in her research and standardize her observations, Quigley and her colleague, Dani Herro, from Clemson University developed a new rubric called, “Co-ACT: Collaborative Problem Solving During Computational Thinking,” to measure how well students are working together to solve problems in computer science learning.

Through interviews and observations, Quigley uses the rubric to measure five dimensions: peer interaction and the roles students take, how students communicate with each other, how they break down problems, their ability to analyze data and iterative thinking.

Mannarino and a student in a red hoodie looking at documents on a tableThe goal of Quigley’s research is to distribute the rubric to instructors, along with a self-paced module that will not only serve as an assessment tool for their students, but for their own teaching. She and her team are also creating an online repository for K-12 teachers of activities to help students with different computer science skills.

Quigley said the goal is to make these resources completely free and available to all instructors—not just in Pennsylvania—as a continued professional development for teachers.

“We hope the rubric will cause teachers to think about things like, ‘Maybe I should’ve designed this lesson differently,’” said Quigley, who noted that the project is currently in the research and data analysis phase.

Instructors like AJ Mannarino, who teaches the seventh-grade industrial technology class at South Fayette Middle School, said he’s excited about the prospect of having access to these resources Quigley is developing.

“Projects that require students to think creatively while collaborating with others are extremely difficult to grade. Do you grade the students individually, separately or both?” said Mannarino. “This rubric will allow me to ensure that every member of each group is working, and that the group is holding each other accountable to move toward a common goal.”

All about collaboration

Holly Plank, a graduate student researcher in the School of Education who is working with Quigley on this project, said this effort supports the future of science education—and that starts with supporting teachers.

“My ultimate goal is to support students and teachers, and to give teachers the skills to empower their students,” said Plank. “The future of science education is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), and students collaborating with each other to solve meaningful, real world problems. We need all students to be able to do that.”

Quigley agrees that collaboration is a huge piece in shaping the future. And evaluating how well students work together is critical for teachers, she said.

“There are really great mathematicians who can read code in Java and Python phenomenally, but they haven’t had experience with others to solve problems. That’s really important,” said Quigley. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to layer in collaboration to this project to require that students are doing this work together. It’s definitely unique to what’s happening nationally in computer science research.”