Today’s students can swipe, type, and tap their devices. But is this enough? Experts at Penn’s Graduate School of Education say no. In order to be informed citizens of the digital world, it is essential that students also understand the technology behind the screen.
“Coding is the new literacy,” says Yasmin Kafai, the Lori and Michael Milken President’s Distinguished Professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Chair of its Teaching, Learning, and Leadership Division. “In today’s ‘Internet of Things,’ computing has already moved out into the real world. We need to develop curricular and instructional activities that incorporate these kinds of applications.”
A world-renowned learning scientist and author, Kafai designs tools that empower students through computer programming. Her work seeks to teach coding through hands-on projects that appeal to and are accessible to students who are statistically less likely to pursue careers in STEM fields, such as women and people of color.
Stitching the Loop, Kafai’s curriculum unit on electronic textiles, is now being implemented in school districts across the country. Using a combination of fabric, conductive thread, and other electronic components, students can create products such as bookmarks that can double as book lights or wristband sensors that can detect sweat. Kafai’s research has shown that these projects teach students to flex their creative muscles, sharpen their problem-solving abilities, and build strong connections with one another. And crucially, students come away with a new understanding of what computer science can be—and who can be a part of it.
Kafai has also collaborated with the Stuart Weitzman School of Design’s Orkan Telhan to bring the emerging field of synthetic biology to Philadelphia-area high schools using wet-lab kits that serve as tabletop biofabrication machines. Using the kits, students learn how to make smells, colors, and shapes with microorganisms. The kits are both affordable and portable, which makes them accessible to school districts that may not have dedicated laboratory space or expensive equipment.
Early exposure to complex fields like biotechnology and programming helps prepare students interested in these fields by teaching them how cutting-edge tools can be used to create new products—especially products that can help solve some of the world’s most pressing economic and ecological challenges. And for all students, the benefits of hands-on, collaborative problem-solving lessons are transferable across multiple elements of learning and life.
“Education is the greatest tool for creating solutions to seemingly intractable problems,” says GSE Dean Pam Grossman, noting that support for innovative, impactful programs such as Kafai’s is a key priority of GSE’s Extraordinary Impact Campaign.
“We need to be constantly innovating so that students are equipped to become informed citizens who understand the technology they interact with every day, and are empowered to succeed in a changing, interconnected world.”
Penn GSE is leading the way to innovation in education.
- The School is leading the way in advancing new modes of teacher preparation to meet the ever-changing needs of education in the 21st century, including the nationally renowned Project-Based Learning Certificate Program, created in 2018.
- GSE is driving stakeholder dialogue and fostering educational entrepreneurship through their center for global education innovation, Catalyst @ PennGSE.
- The Power of Penn Campaign will provide crucial funding to support a major building expansion project at Penn GSE to create flexible and technologically advanced learning spaces that meet the forward-thinking demands of the field.