Educators and STEM advocates are always searching for engaging ways to keep students interested in STEM–and a new graphic novel that uses computational thinking to teach students to code might be the next big thing.

It’s no secret that STEM jobs, especially computer science, are growing more rapidly than the pool of qualified candidates to fill those jobs. But far too often, students lose interest in STEM at an early age, creating a stubborn pattern that many are hoping to break.

Curly Bracket, from Ashoka fellow and Swedish social entrepreneur Johan Wendt, is a combination textbook and graphic novel that builds students’ computational thinking skills.

It takes advantage of the graphic novel format to engage students with visual representations and active movement, and it shows with clarity each problem students must solve and why those problems are important.

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The lead protagonist is a girl, which Wendt said was a non-negotiable when creating the book.

“We didn’t want to support existing structures and stereotypes–we wanted to change them,” he said. “In the book, Curly doesn’t solve her problems using any super powers; she simply pays attention to her studies and learns as a coder would learn. This is what we want to introduce to all kids.”

(Next page: How computational thinking helps students think like programmers)

Computational thinking is a problem-solving method that gives students skills they can apply in various ways and in different subject matters. Students use data to identify components and patterns in a problem, and break the larger problem down into digestible parts. The method comes in handy when writing code.

“Computational thinking has been described as a ‘Swiss Army Knife for solving problems,'” Wendt said. In short, it teaches students to think the way a computer programmer would think by formulating a specific thought process for expressing solutions to problems.

“By giving students this toolbox, we prepare them for not only understanding and handling STEM, but also give them an entry point for enjoying–or even loving–it,” he said.

In 2006, Wendt visited schools in Sweden and talked with children between the ages of 8 and 10 about how technology and engineering are for everyone–especially girls.

“The purpose was not to convince every girl to be a coder, it was to remove any barriers they might have in their minds about computer science–or any STEM career–being an option for them,” Wendt said.

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Research shows that young girls can become discouraged and move away from STEM subjects as early as elementary school, and being proactive can help reverse that trend.

“We need strong female role models at an early age, innovative literature and tools, and encouragement to help girls explore science and technology on their own–these are some of the keys to getting girls into coding and STEM,” Wendt said.

Until fairly recently, technology role models have been mostly men, and while more women are moving into high-profile technology positions, progress is slow.

“Programs like Girls Who Code do a fantastic job of introducing young women to technology and dispelling myths of an industry that’s been historically dominated by males,” Wendt said. “However, they still face an uphill battle because they don’t work with the girls until they are in 6th grade at the earliest. We need to focus on making STEM accessible and engaging from day one.”

This means moving away from static science and math activities and integrating things like physical movement and virtual reality, he said, citing research from Clemson University indicating that combining movement with computer programming helps young girls build computational thinking skills.

“We need to inspire young girls, and create new pathways to success that include new ways of thinking,” he said.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura