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Researchers Awarded $1M NSF Grant to Create Middle School Curriculum

Project Is a Collaboration with School Districts in Lowell, Methuen and Schenectady, N.Y.

CS Pathways teacher workshop
Middle school teachers from Lowell and Methuen work on MIT App Inventor projects during a CS Pathways workshop. The training was held Feb. 8 at Dandeneau Hall on North Campus.

08/24/2020
By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers from UMass Lowell and SUNY Albany won a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a computer science curriculum for middle schools in collaboration with school districts in Lowell and Methuen, Mass., and Schenectady, N.Y.

Called CS Pathways, the project aims to build a partnership between researchers and practicing educators to develop inclusive, culturally responsive and sustainable computer science programs at the middle school level.

“Those of us in the universities are the researchers while the three school districts are the practitioners, and that includes teachers and administrators as well as parents,” says Computer Science Prof. Fred Martin, who is the principal investigator for UMass Lowell.

“Our goal is to give all middle schoolers in the partner districts a taste of what computer science is about,” says Martin. “It’s really about whetting their appetites to learn more and for them to discover that they have a passion for computer science, which many might not realize. So if they get excited by it, then they can make a choice to pursue it in high school and college and, eventually, in their professional career.”

Martin’s share of the NSF grant is worth more than $573,000. Asst. Prof. Hsien-Yuan Hsu and Ph.D. student Bernardo Feliciano, both from the UML College of Education, are spearheading research into students’ computational literacies, and Foozieh Mirderikvand from the Kennedy College of Sciences Dean’s Office serves as project manager.

The grant builds on the work that Martin, his graduate students and community partners did from 2014 to 2017, in which schoolchildren in the Medford and Everett, Mass., school districts learned programming skills by making mobile apps that had a social impact. Some of the apps created for Android phones were designed to help fellow teens deal with cyberbullying and its effects. That project was funded with a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the NSF.
Fred Martin with Medford middle school students
Computer Science Prof. Fred Martin taught Medford middle school students how to create apps for mobile devices in 2017.

“We reached a total of more than 1,200 kids during our partnership with Medford and Everett,” says Martin. “Our vision was to enable students to use computer science as a way of making the world a better place.”

Martin says they would like to establish CS Pathways as a convention or norm so that it becomes an official part of the middle school curriculum. However, he says the process is challenging, given that the curricula are already full and there’s no mandate to teach computer science. 

“Computer science is a young field overall, especially in the K–12 levels, so institutionalization is a challenge,” says Martin. “In the meantime, we’re working with teachers within the districts and training them to become leaders who will carry the project forward after the grant funding period is over.”