STEAM-Based Interventions in Computer Science: Understanding Feedback Loops in the Classroom

Many organizations are seeking to address the need for greater numbers of computer scientists in the US, and in particular, more women and underrepresented minorities. It is not uncommon to develop curriculum that relies heavily on cutting edge technology and computing tools designed to make computing more compelling. Many curriculum developers are seeking to promote creativity as a part of computing, and often do so using STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) based interventions where the arts play a prominent role in the classroom. EarSketch, a web-based computer science instructional tool, is an example of a STEAM-based instructional innovation, where students learn programming skills while engaging in authentic music mixing practices. EarSketch allows students to remix musical samples into original musical compositions, often within hours of first exposure to the application, while simultaneously picking up programming skills. However, there can be hidden challenges to student learning that may not be readily apparent upon observation.

In our efforts to understand the classroom and school level factors that affect successful implementation of EarSketch in computer science classrooms, models were created to explain certain observed behaviors in the classroom. Using Causal Loop Diagrams (CLD’s), a tool from systems engineering and operations research, we have identified reinforcing feedback loops that can result in ‘virtuous’ or ‘vicious’ cycles of student learning with respect to programming. In both cases, the students appear engaged with the activity, but in some cases, fixation on the arts piece, in this case the music, supersedes the students’ active learning of programming and computational thinking practices (the intended learning outcomes in a computer science course.)

In this paper, we present the causal loop diagrams developed to explain the relationships between the actors and attributes involved in implementing EarSketch in a particular school setting. The diagram allows us to better make decisions that ensure both an engaging but also effective STEAM-based computing curriculum. In addition, possible broader ramifications of the results will be explored. The authors expect that virtuous and vicious cycles may be common in other STEAM and technology-based curricular interventions designed to be highly engaging for students. The authors also see potential parallels to engineering curriculum—is time spent ‘tinkering’ leading to student learning of engineering processes? The hope is that awareness of the possible challenges, as evidenced by the feedback loops, will help other interventions implement successfully.

Moore, R., Helms, M., & Freeman, J. (2017). STEAM-based interventions in computer science: Understanding feedback loops in the classroom. Paper presented at the 2017 American Society in Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition (ASEE 2017), Columbus, Ohio.