New Article: Computational Thinking and Expository Writing in the Middle School

Ursula Wolz, Meredith Stone, Kim Pearson, Sarah Monisha Pulimood, and Mary Switzer. 2011. Computational Thinking and Expository Writing in the Middle School. Trans. Comput. Educ. 11, 2, Article 9 (July 2011), 22 pages. DOI=10.1145/1993069.1993073


To broaden participation in computing we need to look beyond traditional domains of inquiry and expertise. We present results from a demonstration project in which interactive journalism was used to infuse computational thinking into the standard curriculum and regular classroom experience at a middle school with a diverse population. Outcomes indicate that we were able to develop positive attitudes about computational thinking and programming among students and teachers who did not necessarily view themselves as “math types.” By partnering with language arts, technology and math teachers at Fisher Middle School, Ewing New Jersey, we introduced the isomorphism between the journalistic process and computational thinking to 7th and 8th graders. An intense summer institute, first with the teachers and then with students recruited from the school, immersed them in the “newsroom of the future” where they researched and wrote news stories, shot and edited video, and developed procedural animations in Scratch to support their storylines. An afterschool club sustained the experience. The teachers adapted interactive journalism and Scratch programming to enrich standard language arts curriculum and are infusing computational thinking in classroom experiences throughout the school.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Interdisciplinary Computing Blog: Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting Number 2: Day 1, Part 1

Liza Kaczmarscyk does a nice job of capturing the first day of discussion at our meeting on Creating a Climate for Interdisciplinary Computing. The discussion on computational journalism to which she alludes was initiated by yours truly and Rich Gordon from the Medill School at Northwestern University. Other journalists here include Jonathan Tracy from the AP, Michelle Ferrier from Elon University, and Barbara Iverson from Columbia College, Chicago.

The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the Quest for Computing Diversity

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

(Disclaimer: while the opinions expressed here are rooted in research that I did with others, these views are my own.)

If Seymour Papert and his colleagues had been able to work their will in the 1980s, an entire generation of school children would have learned to program in LOGO as part of their normal school curriculum. Although LOGO was adopted in some schools, its use never became routine . Instead, the introduction of Microsoft Office and other software applications led most school districts who had computing resources to focus on teaching children to be sophisticated technology consumers, as opposed to technology innovators.

In Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing, a 2008 case study of the Los Angeles Unified School District education, UCLA education researcher Jane Margolis documented the fact that even where school districts invested in bringing computers to classrooms, unequal access to computing education persists. According to Margolis, lack of resources, beliefs that only a few talented individuals can learn computer science and pressure to teach what will be on standardized tests result in a situation where computing education for students in poorer schools is likely to  be limited to basic computing literacy and vocational skills. In addition to raising questions about social equity, this trend exacerbates the longstanding problem of finding enough students to fill the pipeline for current and future computing professionals.

The National Science Foundation, industry leaders and educators have undertaken a variety of initiatives to address this problem. One of those initiatives, the Broadening Participation in Computing program, funded a variety of demonstration projects and larger-scale alliances designed to engage students from underrepresented backgrounds in computing.  The student participants in the BPC program ranged from middle school through college, and hailed from communities across the country. In 2007, I became a co-Principal Investigator in a BPC project led by Ursula Wolz, an Associate Professor of Computing at The College of New Jersey.The goal of our project, the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, is to use community journalism as a hook for exposing middle school students and their teachers with computing. (Award number CNS 0739173)




That was the formal hypothesis, and our data validated it, as our formal and informal presentations, papers and interviews amply document. [A bibliography is supplied at the end of this post that lists that work in detail. This poster, which was presented at the 2010 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, offers an overview of the project from a journalism education perspective.] Participants reported that they understood the similarities between the editorial process and the the process of developing software. They identified programming and something that could be creative and fun. A number of participants have identified specific computing careers that they plan to enter, and are can convey an understanding of the courses they have to take to attain those careers.

The IJIMS project was implemented in collaboration with the faculty and staff of Gilmore J. Fisher Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey, and  with the support of the Superintendent of the Ewing public schools. The Fisher teachers now own the program and are continuing to develop it as a school-year program. In this essay, I am writing about the project as it was originally designed and as it was implemented from the summer of 2008 through June, 2010.

The project consisted of four components:

  • A one-week summer institute for participating teachers. The teachers ran through the summer institute that we had planned for the students, and helped us debug it. The week’s activities included brief introductions to news reporting, writing and editing;  shooting and editing video; and creating animations in the Scratch programming language.
  • A one week summer day camp for middle school students, who worked in beat reporting teams led by their teachers and supported by undergraduate research assistants/counselors.
  • An online magazine consisting of the results of the team reporting projects and powered by a custom built content management system, CAFE (Collaboration and Facilitation Environment). Our undergrads built our own CMS under the direction of co-PI Monisha Pulimood, in an effort to accommodate the need for a simple interface, flexible group collaboration, multiple security levels, and the ability to upload Scratch programs. CAFE also has a built-in sourcebook and production calendar. The 2008-9 issue of the magazine is called FISH (Fisher’s Interesting Stories Here); the 2009-10 issue is NEWS (New Ewing Web Stories)
  • An after-school program, initially available only to participants in the summer program, and then gradually made available to students throughout the school as interest spread.

In addition to these core features, students participated in “off-beat” activities after lunch designed both to let them blow off steam and to reinforce concepts related to journalism or computer science. These activities included established games such as Set, and original activities designed by our undergrads, sometimes in partnership with our teachers. Prime examples included Scott Kieffer’s Source Hunt, which taught students how to evaluate the credibility of news sources. Kieffer described the game in this essay for, excerpted below:

The ‘source hunts,’ as I came to call them, seemed simple enough. We organized the students into teams of reporters. Each team got a list of five questions. Then they sought out their potential sources, who were scattered throughout the building. The ‘sources’ were really just members of the IJIMS team portraying various characters. Student reporters introduced themselves to each source, ask the source’s name and qualifications, and then ask the questions on their list. But there was a catch: Although every source would answer every question, those answers weren’t always correct.”

In 2009, undergraduate researcher Michael Milazzo (now a professional learning designer) taught a swing dancing class as a way of introducing computing concepts. If that seems strange, consider that dance steps use an 8-count (as do bits and bytes), and dance routines consist of steps (or subroutines) that have set beginnings, transition points and endings (control structures), and so forth.

Lessons from Middle School Outreach Projects

In this 2010 interview with participating teacher Laura Fay describes how  IJIMS’ scholastic journalism model  has affected her language arts teaching. She speaks of  the steps she has taken to bring the spirit of collaboration that characterized the IJIMS newsroom into her classroom.

Raymond Broach, who was the superintendent of the Ewing public schools at the inception of the IJIMS project, explained that the IJIMS model changed the district’s view of professional development for teachers in this 2009 interview. Broach said that IJIMS was an unusual professional development opportunity for the Fisher teachers because it augmented their existing skills in a way that allowed them to introduce something completely new to the students.


Beyond IJIMS

Beyond these observations and the positive self-reports of project participants, additional lessons emerge when the IJIMS program is considered in the context of other efforts to attract young people to computing.

  1. Teachers outside of the STEM disciplines can learn how to infuse computing in their classes.
  2. You have to get IT on your side. IT policies within schools and school districts can create significant barriers to progress, even when there is adequate equipment with the school. Firewalls and computing access policies created challenges in customizing our content management system for the school. For example, the web browser installed on the school’s computers was an antique version of Internet Explorer that didn’t work well with modern content management systems. These policies vary from one school district to another, though, even within the same county.
  3. Young people who become interested in computing in middle school need academic and co-curricular paths to computing study in college. Jan Cuny, the program officer at the National Science Foundation who originated the BPC program, notes that fewer than half of the high schools in the United States have AP computer science classes. Part of the reason for this is that there aren’t enough teachers qualified to teach computer science at the high school level. Part of the problem is that computing is consistently incorporated into curriculum standards in K-12 schools across the country. Cuny and her colleagues are attacking this problem with a new initiative, called CE21, or Computing Education for the 21st Century. Central to this, Cuny argues, is the goal of producing 10,000 well-trained computer science high school teachers by 2015. As Cuny argues in this 2010 article (.pdf) for the Computer Science Teacher’s Association newsletter:

    [E]ngagement programs for younger students will be ineffective if students have no further opportunities to explore computing in high school, nor the chance to discover the exciting opportunities computing careers offer. Likewise, revitalized college computing programs will not have a significant impact on degree production if there are too few students showing up at their doors.

  4. As a corollary, they also need support for their social development as future computing professionals in high school through college. That means that computer science and math educators need to continue to develop and disseminate teaching strategies and tools that respond to the diverse ways in which children learn. Successful BPC projects engage their participants creatively and kinesthetically. A kid who gets excited about programming because she has designed games in Scratch or  Alice (another popular entry-level language) might easily get turned off by the traditional approaches to teaching CS. Computer science educators, therefore should be advocates for the arts and physical activities in the schools, and there need to be more cross-curricular collaborations around the connections between those disciplines and computing.
  5. Language arts, art and social studies are ideal areas in the secondary school  curriculum for infusing computing by way of journalism education.


The IJIMS experiment, and the BPC program generally, corroborate my personal middle school experience that learning activities emphasizing games and creative expression can engage children in ways of thinking and problem solving that are foundational to success in computing and related professions. Composing electronic music got me interested enough in electronics that I would take apart my transistor radio, memorize the names of the parts and put it back together. A basic programming class in 7th grade further ignited my interest. However, just as Jan Cuny lamented, my high school did not have programming classes. At the same time, the experience of working on my fourth grade camp newsletter was followed by similar experiences in high school and college. My parents, teachers and counselors reinforced my understanding of how these activities could lead to a writing career. But as technology storyteller Kevin Michael Brooks has argued,  it is a mistake to think that a capacity for creative fields such as writing and fields such computer science are mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be mutually reinforcing if taught in a way that allows students to explore those connections for themselves.

Diversifying the computing pipeline is essential to meeting the current and future needs of media industries. Therefore journalism industry leaders and educators should be active participants in the discussion about broadening participation in computing. Leaders and educators in the computing industry, similarly, should go beyond the traditional focus on recruiting students who have demonstrated facility with math and science as primary candidates for computer science. That pool is too small. Rather, they should recognize and cultivate the latent computing talents in the writers, artist and athletes in their midst. In the next post, I will look at the way in which interactive journalism programs can help the news industry achieve its elusive diversity goals – and respond to its innovation crisis at the same time.

References and endnotes

Articles, papers and presentations on the IJIMS project

U Wolz, M. Pulimood, K. Pearson, M. Stone, M. Switzer, “Computational thinking and expository writing in the middle school.”  ACM Transactions in Computing Education, forthcoming.

with U Wolz,  M.Pulimood, M. Stone; M. Switzer. “Computational Journalism in the Middle School.” Scholastic Division, 2010 Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Denver, Colo. Aug. 4-7, 2010

§ Wolz, U., Stone, M., Pulimood, S. M., and Pearson, K. 2010. Computational thinking via interactive journalism in middle school. In Proceedings of the 41st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, March 10 – 13, 2010). SIGCSE ’10. ACM, New York, NY, 239-243.

§ U. Wolz, K. Pearson, M. Pulimood, M. Stone, and M. Switzer) Broadening Participation in Computing via Community Journalism, New Media Consortium Summer Conference, June 11-14, 2008

§  M. Pulimood, D. Shaw, K. Pearson) “Content Management Systems for Journalism,” New Media Consortium Summer Conference,  June 11-14, 2008

§ (with M. Pulimood, M. Stone, M. Switzer and U. Wolz.) “Scratch in the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle School.” Scratch@MIT conference. MIT Media Lab July 25, 2008

Related links



What is a computational journalist?

A friend posed this question on Facebook in response to my last blog post, and I was tempted to respond, “We’re still figuring it out.” Then I was tempted to be glib and say, “It’s CAR (computer assisted reporting) on the Information Superhighway.” There’s a sense in which both of these statements are true, and yet, there are some things that can be said with some degree of confidence.

Computational journalism is the application of computing tools and processes to the traditional task of defining, gathering and presenting news. This definition is what I was reaching for in my May 2009 essay, “How Computational Thinking is Changing Journalism and What’s Next.” As Adrian Holovaty explained in this September, 2006, blog post, computers aggregate and manipulate structured data, so we make the best use of the technology when we organize our content accordingly. This not only means cataloging our content in ways that make it easier to find (SEO metadata, tags, links and trackbacks for example), but choosing the most efficient and effective forms of information-gathering and presentation for the task and audience at hand.

One example that I used in my essay involved building a module into a local newspaper’s content management system that would pick up specific pieces of metadata from a wire service’s RSS feed (such the time stamp and the dateline) and automatically dump the headline into a breaking news field that loads on the front page.

This kind of automation is one way in which computing technologies can help make the newsgathering process more efficient and timely.  Megan Taylor’s July 2010 post for Poynter reported on how companies such as the New York Times are building applications that automate the retrieval and manipulation of certain kinds of information, such as congressional votes.  Taylor also noted that news operations routinely employ algorithms, or step-by-step procedures that can be codified, or sometimes translated into software applications that can aid reporting and editing.  The third important quality is abstraction, which is a way of generalizing about objects or processes. For example, this web page is governed by an cascading style sheet that is built on a set of abstractions such as “text,” “header,” “link,” “post” and “footer.” Each of these “objects” has properties, such as font, color and alignment  that define its “style.” The webpage interacts with a database organized according to its own set of abstractions.

Why is this useful for the non-programmer journalist to understand?  For one thing, I’ve found it helps me understand what programmers are talking about when we are collaborating. For example, when I worked with my computer science colleague Monisha Pulimood and our students to create the content management systems for our campus online magazine Unbound and our Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, our programmers had to ask detailed questions about the journalists’ workflow in order to create the databases and interfaces for each system. It took a while to understand what was most useful and relevant on both sides, when we worked on unbound, but the process was much smoother during the IJIMS project because we were more practiced at the conversation.

Computational includes, but is not limited to computer assisted reporting.

Sarah Cohen, Duke University’s Knight Foundation Chair in Computational Journalism’s 2009 report “Accountability through Algorithm: Developing the Field of Computational Jounrlaism (.pdf), , envisions new tools that will help reporters gather, analyze and present data and interact with news consumers and sources in more efficient, useful and engaging ways.

One simple example is  Gumshoe, the database manager that Pulimood  and her students built to help another TCNJ journalism colleague, Donna Shaw, analyze data she’d obtained about the disposition of gun crimes in the Philadelphia municipal courts. Using a sample of data from just a two-month period in 2006, Shaw and her students were able to document the fact that hundreds of cases weren’t going to trial, often because evidence and/or witnesses disappeared.  Shaw’s findings were part of the document trail that led to “Justics: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied” a Philadelphia Inquirer multi-part series  on problems in the Philadelphia court system that ran in 2009. (One of the reporters on that project, Emilie Lounsberry, has since joined our TCNJ journalism faculty.) (Reference)

Social network analysis is another great computational tool. I really like this 2006 project created by students from Emerson College a few years ago that illuminated how social networks affected the transmission of health information in Boaston’s Chinatown. The network maps are accompanied by a series of video podcasts about health care issues in the neighborhood.

News games are another important area of development, and I think that collaboration between journalists and game developers are going to lead to the emergence of multithreaded interarctive non-fiction narratives. Another TCNJ colleague, Ursula Wolz, has been helping me think about the possibilities of this field for the last several years. In 2007, we published a paper and a Poynter. org post outlining our idea for a multi-threaded non-fiction storytelling engine. We’ve made progress since then, which I hope to be able to demonstrate in more detail in the coming months. For the moment, here is a very primitive example of a fictional mutithreaded story that I wrote in Scratch using a simple storytelling engine that Wolz wrote for my interactive storytelling class last Spring. (This was actually part of a larger collaboration supported by the CPATH distributed expertise project, which Wolz and I will be presenting, along with our Villanova colleagues, Tom Way and Lillian Cassel, at the SIGSCE conference next March.)


  1. Shaw, Donna., Pulimood, Sarah Monisha. and Lounsberry, Emilie.The Gumshoe Project: A Model for Collaboration Between a Small College and a Large NewspaperPaper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, The Denver Sheraton, Denver, CO, Aug 04, 2010 . 2010-11-15
  2. (with U. Wolz) “ Multi-threaded Interactive Storytelling for Literary Journalism “, The New Media Consortium Summer Conference 2007, Sparking Innovative Learning and Creativity”, invited expanded paper,, pp 38 – 45, 2007

A new Scratch experiment

Here’s the thing. The emerging field of computational journalism makes it more imperative than ever that we find ways to broaden the narrow pipeline for computing professionals. While our IJIMS project was designed to attract young people who see themselves more as storytellers than “math types,” at some point, culturally responsive methods for making math more accessible are critical to producing students who are capable of taking programming courses in college. Algebra is a critical bottleneck.

This interactive story is a first draft of the first episode of a serial interactive story about getting through 7th grade math class. It is based on an interactive story engine designed by my colleague Ursula Wolz. A lot of work has to be done with it yet. The graphics were chosen because they were copyright-safe, so please try to look past that.

If you have trouble getting it to load, you can try the direct link on the Scratch site. I found it loaded best when I ran it through the experimental viewer.

Learn more about this project

Hope you find it interesting. Your feedback is welcome.