T8-T2-2 - Developing computational thinking through project-based airplane design activities

3. Research Full Paper
Dazhi Yang1 , Youngkyun Baek1, Steve Swanson1
1 Boise State University

Computational thinking (CT) is a fundamental skill that involves problem formulation, problem-solving and scientific reasoning (Wing, 2006). The integration of CT in elementary school curriculum has the potential to improve student learning. This study aims to investigate the outcome of project-based, airplane design activities on sixth graders’ CT skills within the context of an integrated STEM learning environment.

Literature review

Integrated STEM was defined as an integration to facilitate students in working on complex tasks “that require students to use knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines” (NAE & NRC, 2014, p. 52). This approach was intended to teach STEM in a connected manner with real world problem solving. Many studies have reported promising benefits of an integrated approach (NRC, 2009; Yang & Baldwin, 2020). In US elementary schools, teachers are responsible for multiple subject areas and an integrated curriculum has a practical value to teach and engage students in STEM learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) engages students in constructing knowledge and learning skills through an extended period centered around solving real world problems (Buck Institute of Education, 2017). In PBL, learning activities and objectives are driven by an overall guiding question with students showcasing their products often through a final competition. The PBL approach with hands-on activities allows students to investigate relevant problems, which is consistent with best practices (e.g., inquiry-based activities) for STEM learning (Kolb, 2014).

Theoretical framework

We have chosen eleven CT components as the foundation for our study based on relevant literature (e.g., Brennan & Resnick, 2012; Grover & Pea, 2018; Lye & Koh, 2014). The components are: a) CT vocabulary such as variables, modeling, testing and debugging; b) Abstraction as sense making through reducing complexity and generalizing from specific instances; c) Algorithm as applying set of tools or sequence of steps to solve problems; d) Communication as descriptions supported by graphs, visualizations, and computational analysis; e) Conditional logic as using strategies to clarify problems and solutions; f) Data collection as gathering data to define or solve a problem; g) Data structures, analysis and representation as exploring data to find patterns, causes, trends, or results to facilitate problem solving; h) Decomposition as simplifying problems or specifying steps to solve problems; i) Heuristics as applying experience-based strategies that facilitates problem solving; j) Pattern recognition as recognizing repeated patterns; k) Simulation and modeling as manipulating data or concepts through controlled programs or exercises.


The study participants consisted of 51 sixth graders at a suburban elementary school. The PBL guided curriculum unit consisted of eight airplane design lessons for 10 days, geared towards developing CT and problem-solving skills as well as student learning about how forces (drag, thrust, lift and gravity) work on an airplane. A Bebras Challenges test with five tasks (Dagienė, 2006) was administered to all students before and after the unit. 39 students completed both tests. The challenges examined students’ logic and CT skills through different types of problems with three levels of difficulty. The challenges took about 35 minutes to finish.

Result and implication

Data analysis showed that the student CT skills were significantly improved (p=.04) after completing the airplane design activities. Given the increasing popularity of integrating CT in elementary school curriculum, this study has important implications for integrating CT in K-12 education. It fills a research gap of using PBL guided design activities to develop CT in students.