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Michael Horn Receives Prestigious Honor for Young Faculty

Scientist to design interactive computer experiences for youth in museums, homes
  • National Science Foundation award is a minimum of $400,000 over five years
  • Informal experiences with computers shape young people’s futures
  • Goal is to increase diversity in postsecondary computer science programs
  • Earlier projects featured in museums around the country

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Michael S. Horn, a scientist who studies how people learn from new technologies and designs innovative learning experiences, has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award, more widely known as a CAREER award, from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Horn will design and study new computational literacy experiences for young people in museums, homes and out-of-school programs. A goal of his CAREER project, titled “Blocks, Stickers and Puzzles: Rethinking Computational Literacy Experiences in Informal Environments,” is to increase diversity in postsecondary computer science programs.

The minimum CAREER award size is $400,000 for a five-year period.

Computational literacy is becoming increasingly important for full participation in society, Horn says. This literacy means being able to use sophisticated computational tools to communicate and explore ideas, to support creative expression and to learn.

“Students draw on a wealth of informal experiences with computers to define themselves, to persist in college and to move on to careers in computing,” Horn said. “We cannot rely on formal experiences with computational literacy alone to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers and citizens.”

Horn is an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and an assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy.

The CAREER award, the NSF’s most prestigious honor for junior faculty members, supports early career development of individuals who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research. 

A recent report by the Association of Computing Machinery estimates that in five years, one out of every two science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States will be in computing. Despite the growth in this area, participation rates of women and underrepresented groups in computer science programs have remained discouragingly and persistently low.

One of the most important findings from research in computer science education is the degree to which informal experiences with computers (at many ages and in many settings) shape young people’s trajectories through high school and into undergraduate degree programs.

“I am particularly interested in studying existing cultural forms of learning, literacy and play as a starting point for broadening what we mean by computational literacy and broadening participation in a computational future,” Horn said.

Horn’s research is very design based, and his lab is a team of designers, artists, learning scientists and computer scientists. The lab develops and tests prototypes in real-world places.

Horn and his team have designed interactive exhibits and learning experiences for museums around the country, including the California Academy of Sciences, Chicago’s Field Museum and Boston’s Museum of Science.

The lab’s most recent exhibit, to open at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, presents visitors with an interactive computer programming experience using a large interactive tabletop display. Visitors use a simple blocks-based programming language to control the actions of colorful frogs that hop around a virtual lily pond.