Dr. Russ Meier, professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation in May to study computational thinking in the formation and enculturation of engineering students. While computer programming is a powerful tool used within engineering – and is certainly one tool used by computational thinkers – computational thinking is a much broader set of skills including abstraction, decomposition, modeling, data representation, algorithm design, and the ethical application of computing within the social context. Computational thinking is thus a set of methods collecting data and analyzing it in a way that problems can be solved using the power of computers.  

“Previous research has demonstrated that while engineering and computational skills have substantial overlap, many engineering students have little or no prior experience with computational thinking,” said Meier. “The goal of this project is to improve the way that computational thinking is taught in colleges of engineering by understanding multiple factors that affect computational thinking development.” 

As technology advances and the availability of supercomputers for deep learning and artificial intelligence increases, engineers will benefit from problem solving using computational thinking.   Working with colleagues at the Texas A&M University and the University of Oklahoma, Meier submitted the $463,000 grant entitled, “Collaborative Research: Research in Improving Computational Thinking in the Formation of Engineers, a Multi-Institutional Initiative.” 

Their mixed-methods research design, involving a computational thinking diagnostic paired with qualitative analysis of face-to-face interviews, will explore answers to three research questions: (1) How does the integration of computing into the foundational engineering courses affect the formation of engineers? (2) In what ways do social identities (e.g. gender, ethnicity, first-generation college attending), choices (e.g. major, transfer status), and other factors impact the engineering student experience with computational thinking? (3) In what ways do computational thinking skills develop over time in engineering students?