Several national policy documents call for improved STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education in K-12 schools. In addition to her work focusing on math and science curriculum, Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Danielle Harlow is also working to improve technology and engineering education. To find the best way to do this, Harlow is investigating how young children develop skills in these areas.
In one project, she is observing how children use computers – with limited instruction to see how students’ ideas build from one another. This project uses XO laptops developed by the “One Laptop Per Child” program (one.laptop.org), originally created for use in developing countries. The XO is a durable and affordable laptop computer that is specifically designed for young, first-time users.
The computers rely on a graphics-based operating system called Sugar and include programs that allow children to program, use video, chat, music, Wikipedia for Kids, and other features. But it is the Scratch and Turtle Art programs where Dr. Harlow focuses her research.
Developed by the MIT Media Lab, the Scratch programming language teaches children about computation and systematic reasoning by providing a means for children to create games, animation, and art. By giving students the opportunity to use Scratch programming in collaboration with their peers, Harlow hopes to find out how young minds develop programming concepts.
This project is not only a great opportunity for Santa Barbara classrooms to incorporate computers in their lessons, but Harlow also hopes to use the results to shape future curriculum.
A second project focuses on engineering. The new standards for science education in K-12 schools will include elements of engineering, which have not been included in California before. Harlow is using the new frameworks to integrate engineering into her elementary methods course and guide her research. “The study of engineering learning relies on similar practices to science, except that the focus is on invention versus discovery.” “Currently, there is not a lot known about how children are learning about engineering,” said Harlow. “A lot of work needs to be done to find out how young minds develop these ideas and practices.”
Harlow’s next endeavor, courtesy of a newly approved grants by the Regents Junior Faculty Fellowship and Hellman Family Foundation, will allow her to study pre-kindergarten and elementary school children’s creativity and engineering concepts by having them engage in engineering tasks.