This interdisciplinary NSF-funded project (PI Marina Bers; co-PI EV Fedorenko) focuses on understanding the cognitive and neural basis of computer programming in young children. Since computer programming is traditionally associated with problem solving, when entering schools it is grouped with STEM disciplines. However, the underlying assumption – that programming abilities are related to math and general problem solving skills – has not gone unchallenged. We are investigating if programming may also be related to the cognitive processes associated with language, akin to acquiring a foreign language. In this interdisciplinary proposal we are using functional MRI to evaluate the hypothesis that engaging in programming can be similar to engaging in language comprehension and production. The overarching goal is to test whether engaging in coding and computational thinking primarily activates the domain-general problem-solving brain regions (the fronto-parietal multiple demand network (MD), and whether it additionally engages the fronto-temporal language network. 

This work comes at a time when there is a re-envisioning of STEM in early childhood education as well as a push for integrating coding at all levels of the educational system. Understanding whether engaging in computer programming primarily relies on domain-general problem-solving resources or whether it additionally engages language processing mechanisms, will provide critical insights into the cognitive and neural basis of programming. Previous research has shown through behavioral evidence that conceptualizing coding as a literacy, and correspondingly using strategies typically used to teach a new language, leads to positive learning outcomes. However, that body of work does not speak to the nature of the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support programming in children. And yet such understanding is key for developing learning trajectories in computational thinking, effective curricula, and policy recommendations for incorporating the teaching of computer science.To date, our nation is moving forward with policy decisions lacking the basic data needed to make informed choices regarding how and when to introduce computer science education. This proposal makes contributions to the fields of learning technologies, early childhood education, and computer science education, as well developmental neuroscience and cognitive sciences.