Montana State University

MSU researchers developing storytelling as way to help teach computing skills

September 11, 2017 -- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Brittany Fasy, bottom center left, is leading an interdisciplinary project to explore storytelling as a culturally responsive way to engage middle school American Indian and rural Montana students in learning computer science and computing skills. Clockwise from top left: Suzie Hockel, Connie Chang, Jachike Madubuko, Allison Theobold, Sweeney Windchief, Brittany Fasy, Brendan Kristiansen. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN – Researchers at Montana State University have begun an interdisciplinary project to use storytelling - an important part of American Indian tradition - to engage American Indian and other middle school students with computer science.

The project, which formally began in August after the researchers received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will use a graphical computer program called Alice that allows students to craft stories by animating people, animals and objects in virtual worlds using a drag-and-drop interface and intuitive programming language. 

“We are raising awareness of computer science in young students throughout the state through our outreach activities and eventually our curriculum development,” said Brittany Fasy, the project’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in the Gianforte School of Computing in MSU’s College of Engineering.

“It’s easing the barrier to learning computer science,” she said. “The students really love doing this, creating a story in their own way.”

By developing classroom tools that could be shared throughout Montana, the project aims to increase the number of students who pursue computer science degrees, as well as to help teachers meet state education requirements.

Montana's Indian Education for All Act, which the Montana legislature passed in 1999 to reinforce educational goals stated in Montana’s 1972 Constitution, requires that “every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.”

According to Fasy’s research team, many Montana teachers find it challenging to develop their own curricula for meeting those requirements. On top of that, teachers are trying to respond to the increasing importance of computer programming in the modern classroom and workplace.

The project aims to help teachers address both those challenges at once, Fasy said.

“We’re taking Alice, which is traditionally used to teach computer science, and using it to teach other curricula as well,” she said.

Alice was developed in the 1990s, first at University of Virginia and then at Carnegie Mellon University, and has since been adopted nationwide as a tool for teaching computer programming. The MSU project will continue to adapt the free, open-source software to make it more culturally relevant by adding landscapes, animals and objects that are specific to Montana, Fasy said.

“I think this is a really good way to match American Indian lived experiences with computer science,” said Sweeney Windchief, a co-investigator on the project and assistant professor in the Department of Education in MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development.

“It’s all about the relevancy for students,” he said. In the classroom, he said, students naturally ask whether curricula relate directly to their individual and community experiences.

Jachike Madubuko, a senior majoring in computer science at MSU, has contributed to some of the half-dozen Alice workshops over the past year that have helped prepare for the newly funded research. Last spring, he helped with a workshop at MSU that was attended by middle school students from Hardin.

“We start by asking them what their favorite story is, and that helps build a bridge to this mysterious thing called an ‘algorithm,’” which is a term used to describe a sequence of computer code, he said.

“Just like a story, an algorithm has a beginning, middle and end,” he said.

Other co-investigators include Mike Wittie, associate professor in the Gianforte School of Computing; Stacey Hancock, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences in MSU’s College of Letters and Science; and Barbara Komlos, admissions coordinator at MSU’s Graduate School.

The NSF grant funds the project through 2020.

Contact: Brittany Terese Fasy, (406) 994-4804.