Turning Kids into Computer Scientists

Research transforming the next generation

Turning Kids into Computer Scientists

Florence Sullivan, professor, explores girls’ engagement in computer science and children’s development of computation thinking skills under two significant NSF grants.


Professor Florence Sullivan

Working with colleagues inside and outside UMass, Professor Florence Sullivan is at the initial stages of two National Science Foundation grant-funded projects that will advance strategies to draw more girls to computer science and further our knowledge of how children develop computational thinking skills. The projects will also have an immediate impact, enhancing the education of underserved students in Springfield and Holyoke.

In her research, Sullivan, a math, science, & learning technologies faculty member and chair of the Department of Teacher Education & Curriculum Studies, has long studied collaborative learning and computational media in middle school students, focusing on problem solving discussions, collaborative creativity, and group dynamics.

Although Sullivan has used such learning tools as Scratch and Alice in her work with kids, she most often works with robotics. “I keep returning to robotics because I think robotics is especially fun for kids, but it’s also an incredibly robust learning environment,” she explains. Just the opportunities that they have with the robot as a manipulative—there’s more access to learning when you add that physical component to it.”

Sullivan explores the problem solving approaches that students develop as they solve robotics problems, what cognitive skills they develop—science inquiry, inferential reasoning, conditional reasoning—and how these skills are related to other content areas. She also examines how students use their creativity in these environments to tackle other challenges, such as how playful talk can be a means of organizing the group’s activities.

Sullivan is the principal investigator on GIRLS, a project funded by a $570,697 grant from the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), a program within the NSF. Through GIRLS (an acronym for Girls Involved in Robotics Learning Simulations), Sullivan and her colleagues hope to better understand how working with robotics simulations can increase girls interest in robotics and computer science.


Maybe we shouldn’t call it computer science, maybe we should call it something else, like ‘innovations that help people'

The grant grew from a concern about why women and girls are not attracted to computer science as a field. While computer science is exploding as a major, the number of women in the field is not increasing at the same rate as the number of men and underrepresented minorities. One of Sullivan’s doctoral students, Ricardo Poza, who is now a research assistant on the project, suggested that perhaps the field needed a shift in it’s branding. “He said—maybe we shouldn’t call it computer science, maybe we should call it something else, like ‘innovations that help people,’” Sullivan recalls. “And we just ran with that idea.”

With financial support from the College of Education, Sullivan and Poza launched a small scale pilot in a Boston-area school last year, to determine if emphasizing the “helping society” nature of CS would draw in more girls.

In the small, seven-student study, they found that seeing computer science projects as a way to help people motivated girls, but drew in boys as well, as did the desire to use computer science as a way to better their own lives. “We started to reframe how we’re thinking about it because there can be community-based goals and there can be what we started to call agentic goals—meaning, ‘I could forward my own life here by doing this, my own economic circumstances’—and we feel like both of those are reasonable approaches.”

Sullivan wrote the NRI grant for GIRLS with Elms College associate professor of computer science Beryl Hoffman, Poza, and Andrew Pasquale and Lissie Fein of Holyoke Codes, a non-profit that gets kids involved in coding, robotics, and technology.

The project links the focus on “innovations to help people” with something the students know a lot about—Hurricane Maria. Given the large number of families in Holyoke with a Puerto Rican background, many have been affected by the hurricane and most are well aware of the devastation it caused. “We thought that this would be a great way to introduce robotics as potential way to help people who have been subject to a natural disaster like a hurricane.”

The team is developing a simulation that allows the students to act as first responders. It will present them with the problem of how to quickly gather information and data—to determine the extent of the damage, where stranded survivors are, and how to get resources to them. They will set up a simulation in the gym of the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club, transforming the space into a disaster scene. The kids will learn to build and program drones to fly into the space and take photographs.


We want to complicate the notion of technology as always a good thing, because we know technology can be used for nefarious purposes.

The project will also introduce students to the potentially darker side of technology: in addition to learning how drones can help, they will discuss the ethical considerations of the technology, which can be used to deliver weapons, bombs, and destruction. “We want to complicate the notion of technology as always a good thing, because we know technology can be used for nefarious purposes,” Sullivan notes.

Sullivan also assumes that talking about and researching hurricanes will lead to conversations about climate change. This will be another opportunity to explore how technology can have a negative impact on the world as well as how it can provide solutions. The goal is to help the students not only develop skills in science and technology, but skill as critical thinkers and citizens around the uses of that technology.

In the first year of the grant, the team will develop a curriculum; in the second year, they’ll work with girls only; and in the third year, they will include boys, to assess how their participation impacts the girls’ experience. Ultimately, they plan to develop a curriculum based on the research for use by other programs and schools.

Sullivan is also part of the team on a four-year, $1.998 million NSF CSforAll grant, working with Rick Adrion of computer science, Enobong Branch of sociology (and associate chancellor for equity and inclusion), Rebecca Mazur and Rebecca Woodland of the College of Education, Springfield faculty and staff, researchers from the Five College Consortium, and MIT, as well as evaluators from SageFox Consulting Group. The project, dubbed CSforAllSpringfield, will help Springfield’s elementary schools prepare students to understand and apply computer science and computational thinking skills early in their education.

Under the grant, the team will help small groups of teachers collaborate to develop integrated lessons on computational thinking. These lessons could be in any area of study—history, science, math, English—but will integrate some aspect of computational thinking abilities.

Sullivan’s role in this multi-year project will be to help teachers develop assessments for the lessons they are creating to better understand the students’ conceptual development. Some of the children they’ll work will be quite young, K-5, so the challenge is to create assessments that don’t necessarily depend on the students’ reading and writing abilities.

“It’s really about supporting the teachers to develop the sorts of observational skills needed to really assess conceptual understanding for young kids,” Sullivan explains. They will help the teachers sharpen their knowledges and practices in assessment techniques that include clinical interviews, artifact analysis, and reflective writing. Sullivan and her research team will also work on understanding young students’ learning trajectories in terms of computational thinking. These findings will be useful for curriculum developers focused on the creation of computer science education for elementary-aged students.

In addition to these projects, Sullivan continues to pursue her interest in methods development. As a researcher, she uses microgenetic analysis—looking closely at a child’s conceptual development over short period of time, a span of minutes, hours, or days. “I’m looking at cognitive abilities or the development of particular problem solving strategies, because as children work in robotics environment, over time, their strategies become more sophisticated.”

Sullivan videotapes and audiotapes children working in small groups and has very robust datasets of everything these kids said to each other over a certain period of time, which helps her understand their conceptual development. “What I’m doing right now is trying to figure out if there are computational or natural language processing means for helping me examine and parse the data—to see if I can use some type of computational linguistics to support my research and my methodology.”

Sullivan is working with a colleague at UMass Lowell, to develop funding for this work. She hopes they’ll eventually be able to develop a software utility that could be useful to researchers across disciplines who use interview data or co-present conversational data to understand human behavior.