Computer Science and Engineering Design in the Science Classroom
By Alexandria Killian Hansen, Ashley Iveland, Hilary Dwyer, Danielle Boyd Harlow,
and Diana Franklin
ounds buzz, lights ash, and characters move across their screens.
These are not the latest video game but actions choreographed and
coded by fourth-grade students. Some students have programmed
characters to dance, to converse, or to chase one another. Others have pro-
grammed scenes of a story that can be changed with the click of the mouse.
These students had recently completed a series of lessons aimed at teaching
the most basic principles of computer programming and were working on nal
projects of their own design. Fortunately, graphical programming makes cod-
ing accessible to elementary school children and allows scenes like the one de-
scribed to become increasingly more common in classrooms across the country.
Science and Children60
As science teachers continue preparing for implementa-
tion of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead
States 2013), one recommendation is to use computer pro-
gramming as a promising context to efciently integrate
science and engineering. In this article, our interdisciplin-
ary team of educational researchers and computer scientists
describe how to use programming as one
way to teach engineering design using
tasks like creating a digital story to de-
scribe science phenomena or a “how-to”
animation that demonstrates how to rep-
licate a science experiment or activity in a
fourth-grade classroom. In our activity,
students used the Scratch programming
language (see Sidebar) to create programs
about science phenomena and science ac-
tivities by using the engineering design
stages of dening problems, developing
solutions, and optimizing solutions.
As part of a National Science Foundation grant, we devel-
oped a block-based programming environment and cur-
riculum to teach basic coding and computational thinking to
upper elementary school students, including approximately
12 hours of instruction (Franklin et al. 2014). During most of
this time, children completed engaging coding tasks to learn
the basics of the programming platform through the schools’
computer labs or in classrooms with one-to-one devices.
For example, in one coding exercise, students programmed
each of the planets in the solar system to say its name when
clicked. One important change we made at the later stage of
curriculum development was to integrate a set of activities
into the curriculum that focused on engineering design. The
NGSS calls for teachers to engage students in engineering
design, “…the iterative cycle of design that offers the great-
est potential for applying science knowledge in the classroom
and engaging in engineering practices” (NRC 2012, p. 201).
The NGSS breaks engineering design into three com-
ponents: dening and delimiting an engineering prob-
lem, developing possible solutions, and optimizing the
design solution. The NGSS also describes what students
in grades 3–5 should be able to accomplish to demon-
strate understanding of these three stages. In dening
and delimiting the problem, students
should dene a simple problem and
outline that problem in terms of crite-
ria for success and possible constraints.
In developing possible solutions, stu-
dents should generate multiple solu-
tions and evaluate how each solution
meets the criteria and constraints pre-
viously outlined. Last, to optimize the
design solution, students should test
their solution and seek to identify fail-
ure points that can be improved. Each
stage is discussed in the context of sci-
ence and computer programming in
this article, with practical suggestions for teachers inter-
ested in bringing this type of work into their classrooms.
Students used engineering design to develop and re-
vise their nal projects, which were digital stories. Al-
though these digital stories could be aligned with any
content area, we chose science. Digital stories are stories
created and shared on a computer. They may consist of
video, digital photos, and drawings that are edited with
video editing software (Holloway and Mahan 2012; Gé-
néreux and Thompson 2008) or they can be programmed
using interfaces designed for children (i.e., Scratch).
Creating digital stories is an example of project-based
learning (PBL) because it allows students to create a
meaningful artifact over an extended period of time.
Here we describe the programming interface and the
set of activities focused on engineering design, followed
by examples of student work. We’ll demonstrate how
we engaged children in science and engineering design
through computer programming.
Programming Interface: Scratch
Scratch is a student-friendly, graphical programming interface designed to be accessible to novice computer
programmers. It is free, making it a reasonable choice for elementary school classrooms (see Internet
Resources). In Scratch, programmers create scripts (short programs) to make sprites (two-dimensional
pictures of people, animals, or objects) move, make noises, and interact with other sprites. To create
these scripts, users select commands that look like puzzle pieces (called blocks) and drag them onto the
programming area. These blocks snap together to make scripts. A short video tutorial can be found on the
Scratch homepage. It was designed to be easily accessible to individuals with little to no experience with
coding. There is also a page for educators interested in using Scratch in the classroom. There are other
sources for getting started with computer programming, including mobile apps such as Hopsotch, Scratch Jr,
CargoBot, Kodable, and Tynker.
November 2015 61
A Model for Developing Science
Lessons for Design
Stage 1: Deﬁne and Delimit an
The rst stage of engineering design is to specify the
problem or task at hand. Teachers took 20 minutes to de-
scribe two possible “programming problems” for young
programmers to use their science knowledge:
(1) Create a digital story that explains a science phenom-
enon. In this “problem,” the goal is to program a se-
ries of scenes and objects that will explain a science
(2) Create a how-to video to explain how to do a science
activity or experiment. A “how-to” video is also a
programmed series of scenes and objects. The differ-
ence is that in this case the story tells a viewer how to
These problems can be further constrained by selecting
a specic science topic. Teachers choose to leave the sci-
ence content up to the students, but the topic could easily
be connected to any unit of study. Popular topics selected
by our students included how to make ice cream, how to
mimic a volcanic eruption, and stories about the value of
healthy eating. After teachers dened the initial problem
and specications, students further dened the problem
by thinking about the audience (e.g., peers, younger chil-
dren, their parents). They then began gathering informa-
tion necessary to complete the task. This included internet
research, reviewing their science notebooks, or using other
classroom resources. Teachers assigned students to part-
nered groups to brainstorm, storyboard, and program
their digital stories.
Stage 2: Develop Possible Solutions—
Teachers required students to turn in a storyboard
(detailed in a graphic organizer) before allowing them
to begin programming on the computer (see NSTA
Connection). Storyboards are simple drawings of each
planned scene of the program. Figure 1 shows a sample
storyboard and program developed as an example dur-
ing this lesson. This example shows a model of light re-
ecting off objects and entering the eye to be seen. Un-
derneath the storyboard, the programming tools that
are necessary to animate the story in Scratch are listed.
In their storyboards, students sketched each scene
of the story and identied the command blocks or
programming tools that would allow them to animate
Student’s storyboards depicting how-
their ideas. The storyboards allowed students to think
about the science content they wanted to demonstrate
and to consider how they could explain the phenomenon
within the constraints of what they could complete with
Scratch programming. The storyboards also afforded the
teacher an initial indicator to their students’ understand-
ing. Teachers provided approximately 45 minutes for stu-
dents to work on this part of the project.
Notice that the nature of the activity allows different
types of knowledge to be demonstrated. In Figure 2, the
storyboard is a “how to” video for duplicating a recent ac-
tivity they had done in science—how to make their own ice
cream. This storyboard (and the corresponding program)
demonstrated that the students knew the steps necessary to
make ice cream in a bag. It does not, however, demonstrate
Scenes from student work depicting
how to make ice cream.
Science and Children62
Programming Digital Stories and How-To Animations
output, students revised their scripts. To facilitate optimi-
zation, teachers posed questions like: “How can you use
fewer blocks to make that program more efcient? Are all
specications and constraints being met? How could we
make this program faster or more detailed?”
Optimizing designs includes considering the various
constraints and determining how to create the best solu-
tion within these constraints. Although professional en-
gineering constraints may include time, money, or mate-
rials available, constraints might look slightly different in
a classroom. For the fourth graders, constraints included
programming tools available on the computer, time allot-
ted to complete the assignment, and program requirements
(e.g., how many characters and scenes must be included,
specic commands that must be used). Teachers provided
approximately one hour for students to complete this
part of the task. However, students could spend much
more time if they were able to return to working on
their project during free time over multiple days.
Assessment, Challenges, and
Digital stories can be assessed for science content
knowledge, engaging in engineering design, for the
use of programming concepts, or for any combination
of these. We provide a sample rubric for teachers to as-
sess students according to the NGSS (Figure 4, p. 64).
In our example, the digital storytelling activity
was part of a series of computer programming activi-
ties done during the students’ regular weekly time
in the computer lab. Working with children in com-
puter labs has different classroom management is-
sues than working with children in classrooms. In the
Teaching Tips table, we describe our own classroom
management challenges and solutions we created (see
NSTA Connection). In addition, we included poten-
tial accommodations and modications for students
with special needs, such as modifying the required
number of commands a program must perform. In
the context of programming, these suggestions may
even be an appropriate scaffold for students with
little computer experience.
Examples of students’ optimized
that they know how the ice cream forms (which was not the
goal). In our case, this “how to” video only demonstrated a
procedural understanding of scientic concepts. Neverthe-
less, it did serve as a formative assessment that provided the
teacher an opportunity to identify students’ ideas.
Stage 3: Optimize the Design Solution
After students created their storyboards, they moved to
the computer, where they programmed and optimized
their design solution. In this stage the teacher and stu-
dents needed to consider what constituted an “optimal so-
lution.” In some cases they decided that optimal solutions
require the fewest number of commands, in others that
the solution that is the most entertaining to a user. They
also considered constraints such as time allotted to nish
the project and available commands. Students’ optimized
programs can be seen in Figure 3.
During this phase, students test and revise their designs
and evaluate their approach in light of the specied crite-
ria and constraints. Students tested their solution by itera-
tively checking the programming commands to ensure the
desired output was displayed when running the program.
When their programs did not result in the anticipated
Optimizing designs includes considering
the various constraints and determining
how to create the best solution within these
constraints. Although professional engineering
constraints may include time, money, or
materials available, constraints might look
slightly different in a classroom.
November 2015 63
Programming Digital Stories and How-To Animations
Sample rubric for assessing digital stories.
Below Expectations Meets Expectations Exceeds Expectations
Student does not deﬁne
problem OR student
does not revise the
Student deﬁnes the
problem and iteratively
Student accurately describes the problem, and
iteratively revises the design to optimize the solution.
Student justiﬁes what qualiﬁes the design as optimal
when compared to other possible solutions.
Student does not create
a digital story OR
digital story contains
only one sprite (or
character) and one
scene (or background).
Student programs a
digital story that uses
multiple sprites (or
characters) and multiple
scenes (or backgrounds).
Student programs a digital story that uses multiple
sprites (or characters) and multiple scenes (or
backgrounds) with a variety of events occurring
throughout. The digital story functions without the
student initiating each action.
Digital story demon-
strates low understand-
ing of the targeted
content. Story may have
or omit appropriate
Digital story demon-
of the targeted content.
Story is conceptually
accurate and correctly
Digital story demonstrates thorough understanding
of the targeted content. Story is conceptually accurate
and correctly uses appropriate vocabulary. Student
is able to connect targeted content to other grade-
appropriate content and/or crosscutting concepts
through the digital story.
Through explicit teaching of design thinking using a mo-
tivating task such as programming a story, teachers can
better support their students in mastering scientic and
engineering practices as dened by the new standards. By
allowing students more exibility and creativity, students
are more motivated to accomplish the specied task and
more apt to use and share their prior knowledge on the
Alexandria Killian Hansen (email@example.com.
edu) is a graduate student studying STEM education,
Ashley Iveland is a graduate student studying science
education, and Danielle Boyd Harlow is an associate pro-
fessor, all at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Hilary Dwyer is an upper elementary and middle school
technology teacher at Ojai Valley School in Ojai, Califor-
nia. Diana Franklin is the Director for Computer Science
Education at the Center for Elementary Math and Sci-
ence Education at the University of Chicago.
Franklin, D., D.B. Harlow, H.A. Dwyer, and J. Henken et al. 2014.
Kids Enjoying Learning Programming (KELP-CS Curriculum)-
Module 1 Digital Storytelling. Available at https://discover.
Généreux, A.P., and W. Thompson. 2008. Lights, camera,
reﬂection! Digital movies: A tool for reﬂective learning.
Journal of College Science Teaching 37 (6): 21–25.
Holloway, P., and C. Mahan. 2012. Enhance nature exploration
with technology. Science Scope 35 (9): 23–28.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12
science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core
ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards:
For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies
Find the storyboard graphic organizer and teaching
tips table at www.nsta.org/SC1511.
Science and Children64