Hi! We are from Outlier Research and Evaluation at CEMSE at the University of Chicago (Outlier), home to a new CS10K project, Examining the Factors that Affect the Implementation and Sustainability of Exploring Computer Science (ECS) in Schools and Districts. This work – also know as “the BASICS Study” (Barriers and Supports to Implementing Computer Science in High Schools) – builds on a previous Outlier project, OS4CS, which established a more comprehensive understanding of our nation’s current high school CS teaching and learning environment.

The overarching goal of the BASICS Study is to support educators who are working to advance CS education. School districts participating in our project include three that use the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) program: the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools and DC Public Schools.

Momentum is clearly building for CS education. As a kick-off to the BASICS study, we did some digging to learn more about the history of K-12 CS education in the United States. During this search, we found a couple interesting tidbits:

It is this last item, the move in K-12 CS from drill and practice to problem solving or computational thinking that we find particularly interesting. We want to hear from you:

What does an emphasis on problem solving processes look like in your ECS or CSP classroom? What part of problem solving comes easily for some students, and what parts seem to be a struggle for them?


The BASICS Study is a two and a half year project, so expect to hear from us about this topic and others throughout the study with real-time findings and tools that will hopefully be of interest to you and your CS colleagues. In the meantime, we want to kick off our presence on this blog by providing a list of CS education blogs we are keeping tabs on, and that may be of interest to you:


Sarah Wille
Co-Principal Investigator

Sarah J. Wille is a researcher at Outlier Research and Evaluation at CEMSE at the University of Chicago, andthe Co-PI of the CS 10K project Examining Supports and Barriers that Affect the Implementation and Endurance of Introductory Computer Science in Schools and Districts. She has worked with Outlier since 2010 on a range of research and evaluation projects focused on improving STEM education.

Courtney Heppner
Associate Project Director

Courtney Heppner is an Associate Project Director at Outlier Research and Evaluation at CEMSE at the University of Chicago. Prior to Outlier, Courtney was the Associate Director for STEM Projects at the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education at The Ohio State University, and a Research Associate at American Institutes for Research in Washington D.C. At Outlier, Courtney’s research focus has been on STEM schools and computer science education.

Amelia Baxter-Stoltzfus
Research Assistant

Amelia Baxter-Stolzfus is a Research Assistant at Outlier Research and Evaluation at CEMSE at the University of Chicago. Amelia received her masters in Anthropology from New York University in 2012. She is an aspiring forensic pathologist.





Crystal Furman's picture

Posted: 12/16/13 - 11:55am ET by Crystal Furman

It is very hard to put into words what it looks like to teach students how to solve problems, with or without computers.  I find myself relying a lot on my training as a math teacher.  Having them break problems down, examine what the words mean, what are they being asked to do.  We spend a lot of time talking about different “tools” they can use to solve problems, such as highlighting or underlining or drawing pictures. For some problems, I have them break things down into categories: input, output, variables. From this point, they are asked if they can create a general formula or algorithm that can be used to solve the problem regardless of the inputs.   

Another trick that I use is for students to trace their solution out on whiteboards with various test cases.  This is especially important when they are trying to figure why something isn’t working. They will spend hours and days making changes to code to see what happens, and still be unable to solve a problem, but when given a white board, and asked to trace through what they have, they are able to better see and understand what they have written and are able to find their problem and fix it much more quickly, than their method of trial and error. 

Students are also given the opportunity to work together to solve problems. I find that having them switch roles each day helps.  One person writing / typing one day, while the other talks and directs, and then switch. 

I spend time teaching my students how to develop flow charts, or storyboards.  During 1st semester, my CSP students worked with Alice 3.0.  We spend time working on developing storyboards.  I have them develop visual and textual storyboards.  They find this very difficult. They want to just experiment with Alice and write it as they go along. It is difficult to get students to stop and make a plan, or stop and think about what they want the program to do before using the program to do it. They claim it is easier, but they spend a lot of wasted time “trying” things, instead of taking the time to think about it ahead of time. Eventually, I give the students a bit of a break and let them choose between visual and textual storyboards. But given a choice, they would choose neither. 

I am always amazed by what trips some students up when it comes to solving problems. Often times they have fooled themselves into believing that the answer is difficult that they can’t see it is as simple as a division problem. For example, students in my class had a situtation where they had to create an algorithm to calculate the number of small and large bricks needed to equal a certain length.  I asked them the question, if our goal length is 15 and the large brick length is 5, how many would we need? They were so stuck on the fact that the answer had to be difficult they were unable to come up with the simple answer of 3.  That was too easy for them. These students knew that they needed to divide, but they weren’t in a math classroom, they were in a “hard” class, so the easy answer elluded them.  It was a good lesson for them, that often, they are missing what is right in front of them, because they are too busy looking for the obscure answer.