GK-12 DISSECT: DIScover SciEnce through Computational Thinking

Context and Motivations:

The overarching concept behind the DISSECT (DIScover SciEnce through Computational Thinking) project is scientific computational thinking [1]. Computational methods are central to virtually any scientific discipline (“All Science is Computer Science” [2]), yet this perspective is lacking in the training provided to the new generation of computer scientists and in the way STEM subjects are taught in K-12 curricula.

DISSECT proposes to address these issues by enabling CS graduate students to investigate the relevance of their research in the broader scientific arena, and to develop communication, leadership, and team working skills to operate outside their specific CS discipline. At the same time, traditional approaches to exposing young students to computing rely on introducing computing as a separate discipline, using high-level languages, with their idiosyncrasies; real world applications are introduced as illustration of computing concepts, often as an afterthought. DISSECT proposes to proceed in the opposite direction, by introducing computational thinking as a problem-solving methodology in the context of existing STEM courses.


From CS to Science – Creating a New Generation of Researchers:

Cutting-edge research in several areas of CS has direct implications in producing enabling technologies for scientific discoveries. In recent years, we have witnessed an explosive interest in computational sciences, which has brought the forefront of CS research to the service of biology, chemistry, mathematics and other scientific disciplines. Computer scientists have found themselves increasingly operating in interdisciplinary research, and modern CS research is often guided by problems from other scientific disciplines. While this perspective is gaining momentum – and graduate programs are blossoming in specialized areas like bioinformatics – this broader picture and potential societal impact of CS is often missed in the focused pursuit of a traditional CS graduate degree. Graduate students in CS are frequently: (a) not trained in maintaining a broader vision of CS research, losing sight of how their research can be transformative in other domains; this detracts from the research itself, as scientific applications are often sources of new ideas; (b) not equipped with skills to communicate research ideas to audiences non-technical and from a different scientific background – these skills are vital in academia (e.g., as researchers, as proposal writers).

DISSECT will require CS graduate students to take a step back, in order to nurture a broader view of their research and explore the application of a focused CS research technology (e.g., sensor networks) to enhance solution of a traditional science problem (e.g., environmental modeling). This exploration will expand the scope of research, and it will guide the creation of educational modules that integrate CS with other scientific disciplines; the process will also enable graduate students to develop the skills to effectively communicate science to a broad and diverse audience of students, teachers, and researchers.

Computational Thinking in the Classroom – Stimulating Interest in STEM & CS:

DISSECT aims to revitalize interest and preparation in STEM in general, and CS in particular, by infusing computational thinking and computational methods in traditional STEM classes at the middle/high school levels, and increasing teachers’ effectiveness in STEM coursework. Interest and success in STEM among K-12 minority students remains low, and among the general student population interest in CS has plummeted since 2000. Our approach to reversing this trend is innovative in that we propose to use computational concepts not as an independent (and “dry”) discipline, but as a dynamic instrument of scientific reasoning and problem solving in STEM disciplines, such as biology, mathematics, and engineering.

Benefits for the Fellows:

  • The opportunity to expand the graduate-level research outside of the classroom and purely academic setting, and apply it to concrete problems within different scientific domains
  • Training in presentation and communication, teaching methodologies, curriculum development
  • Opportunity to work as part of a dynamic team and participate in the discovery of new educational tools and methodologies
  • Opportunity to impact the lives of young students, by helping them in gaining confidence and mature problem solving skills
  • A two-year $30,000/yr stipend and funds for other educational expenses

Benefits for K-12 Instructors:

  • Opportunity to work side-by-side with domain experts from different areas of computer science
  • Opportunity to avail of the help of talented graduate students in the development of curricula and curricula materials that embed computational methods in the teaching of STEM disciplines
  • Opportunities to receive training in using computational methods in classroom settings
  • A one-year or two-year $5,000/yr stipend to participate in the program


[1] J. Wing, Computational Thinking. In: Communications of the ACM, 49: 33-35, 2006.

[2] G. Johnson, All Science is Computer Science. New York Times, March 25th, 2001.