Unlocking the Future: First Elementary School Informatics Program Launched

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© Amélie Chapalain_eduLAB
© Amélie Chapalain_eduLAB
TU Wien Informatics starts its first "Abenteuer Informatik" workshop program for elementary schools, funded by LEA Women’s Fund.

TU Wien Informatics now organizes computer science workshops for elementary school classes at TU Wien to get children interested in STEM topics at a very early age. The first workshop was held on May 16, 2023, at TU Campus Favoritenstraße. More than 20 workshops are planned annually, aiming at third graders in Vienna’s elementary schools, thus offering 18.000 children a chance to participate. With a grant of 80,000 euros, LEA Women’s Fund supports the faculty to particularly attract elementary classes until spring 2024. TU Wien Informatics eduLAB has been holding workshops for higher grades for several years now, "but since elementary school classes are much more supervision-intensive, we are glad to finally have the necessary resources to cover this new ground," says Laura Kovacs , Professor for Formal Methods and head of the project.

In the pilot phase from December 2022 to September 2023, 7 workshops have been held with three schools at TU Wien Informatics. "We cooperate closely with eduLAB and have learned a lot from their now-retired head, Gerald Futschek. Especially how we can make the transition from school lessons to a workshop situation at the university easier for children. The goal is to tackle ’fears of the unknown’, not only about computer science and STEM subjects, but science as a whole," Laura Kovacs explains.

Transforming Perceptions: What is Informatics?

Contrary to what one might assume, no computers are involved in the workshops. They are about understanding basic informatics concepts at a young age. Tasks are age-appropriate, realistic, and playful to inspire fun and interest in computer science. The children learn to solve 2-3 tasks using logical thinking and problem-solving, delving into concepts that might seem complex even to adults: Algorithms and data structures, parallel computing, artificial intelligence, and computer security. The children learn to understand how an algorithm works, how to develop their own, and how to write a short program.

The project leaders Sophie Rain , Martina Landman and Svetlana Unkovic not only have a strong research background in informatics and didactics but are role models for young girls venturing into computer science. "By reaching out to elementary schools, we hope to get kids excited about computer science before they are forced into gender stereotypes, " Martina Landman, who works as a teacher and pre-doc researcher in informatics didactics, is sure. "Not only students are hesitant regarding computer science, but also teachers. Needless to say, this can influence a young person’s opinion on informatics greatly. That’s why it’s so important for us to change common perceptions like: Informatics is for boys, is nerdy, anti-social, and only happens in dark rooms full of screens and wires."

Breaking Gender Stereotypes: Informatics for all

The gender-sensitive teaching methods used in the workshops enable children to participate equally. "Minimizing gender bias in teaching informatics is all about framing and wording," Sophie Rain, pre-doc researcher at the Research Unit for Formal Methods in Systems Engineering , explains. Studies show girls are more interested in topics if animals and people are involved; boys, on the other hand, are indifferent. Therefore, the team’s workshop materials feature animals instead of objects. They avoid ’tech-speak’ like hacking/attacking but opt for more general terms like ’design/code/create’. "In our experience, girls excel at mathematics and cooperative problem-solving. I also found my way to computer science through mathematics and hope to inspire many young girls for an IT career," Rain says.

Elementary schools in Vienna can book the workshop on request to Laura Kovacs, an online booking system in cooperation with eduLAB is currently being planned. In the future, the team aims to roll out a workshop program for schools all over Austria. "After the workshop, many children told us they wanted to come back to study at TU Wien," Laura Kovacs says, "that’s what keeps us going."