Author Interview: Jacqueline Leonard et al.

October 8, 2018

This interview features Dr. Jacqueline Leonard’s insights from the JTE article “Preparing Teachers to Engage Rural Students in Computational Thinking Through Robotics, Game Design, and Culturally Responsive Teaching.” Dr. Leonard co-authored the article with Monica Mitchell, Joy Barnes-Johnson, Adrienne Unertl, Jill Outka-Hill, Roland Robinson, and Carla Hester-Croff. The article is published in the September/October 2018 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. You can read the full text by following this link.

Q1. What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?  

While culturally responsive pedagogy has been my primary research topic for at least two decades, my interests in robotics and computational thinking (CT) are relatively new. I was exposed to robotics in 2011 when I worked as a tutor for the Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists (CABPES) in Denver. Middle and high school students of color engaged in robotics clubs and competitions at CABPES. My interest in CT was piqued when I met Professor Alexander Repenning at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and his colleagues are the authors of Scalable Game Design. They offered summer training in Boulder for educators to learn how to develop 2-D (AgentSheets) and 3-D (AgentCubes) digital games. Several research studies have reported the benefits of student engagement in robotics or game design. However, there were no studies that examined computational thinking after participating in both robotics and game design. When I discussed the idea with a program officer at the National Science Foundation, he was very excited about the prospects. Thus began our study on robotics and game design with rural children.


Q2. Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

Helping all students to learn how to code and gain access to exciting STEM career paths is important to [Dr. Leonard]. The main impetus for implementing this study was to expose rural and Indigenous students to emerging technology in order to interest them in STEM and STEM-related careers. A visit to the Wind River Reservation near Riverton, WY and the small town of Powell convinced me that the project was important and timely. During the study, Indigenous students expressed their creativity and, in some cases, embedded their history and symbols in robotics game boards and digital game design. Rural students engaged in place-based learning and embedded mountains, farms, and animals in their games. 


Q3. What new educational policies would you like to see as a result of your research findings?

President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative in 2016 is moving STEM education research in the right direction. Technology continues to drive industry in the 21st century. Trends show that more than 50% of all jobs will require knowledge of computer science in the next decade. Access to digital devices in our nation’s schools are critical to closing the digital divide. Teachers should learn how to harness technology and use it to motivate students to learn STEM content.


Q4. Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

In addition to the rural context, we also conducted the study with eight urban teachers in Pennsylvania. The teachers and students in three urban schools provided a plethora of additional narratives and data. However, the decision was made to focus on Wyoming in this manuscript. Another article about the urban context is under review.


Q5. What current areas of research are you pursuing?

[Dr. Leonard is] currently conducting a new research study that examines CT within the context of 3-D computer modeling and aviation. Students are using Tinkercad and Sculptris to learn about computer modeling, and flight simulator X and drones to learn about aviation and the principles of flight.


Q6. What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

One of the challenges that teachers are facing today is how to keep up with technology. Some school districts are moving toward one-to-one technology, and teachers are having a difficult time knowing exactly how to use digital devices effectively in the classroom. Teacher education programs must address this issue by providing prospective teachers with the tools and training to engage K-12 students in meaningful and innovative technology experiences.


Q7. What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

New scholars should be open to different possibilities. You may train in one field but end up conducting research in another field. My [Dr. Leonard’s] background was in science education. I was a middle school science teacher earlier in my career. Then I obtained certification to become a mathematics teacher and pursed advanced degrees in mathematics education. I never imaged that I would have received grants to conduct research in Earth and space science, paleontology, robotics, game design, aviation, and computer modeling. Thus, new scholars should take advantage of opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary work whenever possible.

Questions or comments? Connect with the authors!

Corresponding Author: Jacqueline Leonard, University of Wyoming, 1000 E. University Ave., Laramie, WY 82071, USA. Email: 

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