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The Hidden Underrepresented Group: Opening the Door to Computer Science for Students with Learning Differences


"The computer science (CS) education field is engaging in unprecedented efforts to expand opportunities in K-12 CS education, and to broaden participation of those students traditionally absent from CS. A key component of this effort is the new AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) course, scheduled to launch in the fall of 2016. However, even as the field considers ways to provide access to high school computing in general, and the AP CSP course in particular one of the underrepresented groups is often overlooked: students with learning differences (that is, students with specific learning disorders and related attention disorders, like ADHD). The national dialogue about broadening participation in K-12 computing education, while growing in volume, has given almost no voice to this population. As computing initiatives grow, K-12 teachers need guidance about how to account for challenges specific to learning disabilities and related attention disorders so that students who learn differently can access instruction and curriculum in ways that address their learning needs.

To address this problem, a team from Outlier Research & Evaluation at CEMSE | University of Chicago, and Wolcott School (an independent college preparatory high school in Chicago for students with learning differences) is conducting a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported study (#1542963) that aims to improve the quality of educational opportunities and outcomes in CS for high school students with learning differences. Together, our interdisciplinary group is applying a rigorous research approach to identify challenges specific to learning differences in two sets of CSP instructional materials; making adjustments to the materials to address those challenges; and testing the adjusted materials with students at Wolcott School. The team will share what works and why with AP CSP curriculum developers and CS teachers to equip them with research-derived supports for student needs specific to their learning differences.

This paper has two primary aims: (1) to report on the first phase of this NSF-supported research and in doing so, to highlight the need for CS instructional materials development with diverse learners in mind; and (2) to describe the study team's process of collaboration across education research and practice as a critical element of the project, and ultimately of evidence-based, equity-minded change in CS. "