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NMSU receives grant to build public school students' concepts of modern computer science

Are you intimidated by computers? Does the concept of incorporating computer science into your daily life cause you to break out in a cold sweat?



Attending New Mexico State University's third Research Rally Feb. 25 are, from left, Susan W. Brown, director of the Institute for Excellence in Math and Science Education in the NMSU College of Education; Enrico Pontelli, computer science department head at NMSU; and Jonathan Cook, associate professor of computer science at NMSU. (NMSU Photo by Hamid M. Rad)

Researchers at New Mexico State University are determined to help people become more comfortable with the concepts of computing and programming - and they are starting in the public schools.

At a Research Rally Feb. 25 at the Las Cruces campus, NMSU faculty and staff celebrated a $2.4 million grant - GK-12 DISSECT (DIScover SciEnce through Computational Thinking) - from the National Science Foundation that will allow researchers to address the problem of promoting preparation in the field of computing for students and instructors in middle and high schools.

Enrico Pontelli, the principal investigator of the project, said computational science and computational thinking is at the core of almost every science-related field.

"Even though the scientific world has changed in this direction, the educational world has not embraced this," Pontelli said.

Through this project, NMSU graduate students visit middle and high school classrooms in the Las Cruces Public School and Gadsden Independent School districts to assist and train teachers in making innovative use of computational tools in the teaching of traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.

For its first year, the project has four fellowship students and four public school teachers.

"They are working as a team," Pontelli said. "The teachers are training the fellows to operate in the classroom. The fellows are training the teachers to become competent in computational methods. Together they are working in developing these new models."

Pontelli, who is a professor and serves as the department head of computer science, said he is very hopeful that this project will expand over time to include more students and more teachers. He said he expects to increase the number of participants to 10 fellows and 10 teachers in the coming years. The DISSECT grant is for five years.

Barbara Couture, president of NMSU, said she frequently talks with state legislators about what NMSU is doing to help improve public schools and the educational experience of students so they can be competitive in the global economy.

"We know that science and technology, and engineering and math are the areas where America needs to begin to step up its efforts promptly in order to be competitive on the global scale," she said. "I am very proud to say that New Mexico State University has taken a great leadership role there."

DISSECT builds on the expertise in computing and outreach provided by the Computer Science Department, including Jonathan Cook, with the Department of Computer Science; and Susan Brown, director of the STEM Outreach Office in the College of Education, as well as other staff in the outreach office. It is a collaboration among several researchers in the computer science, education, mathematical sciences and biology departments at NMSU, and instructors and administrators at the area school districts.