Computer Programming for All: YSU Receives Research Grant from National Science Foundation

By Kelcey Norris

Abdu Arslanyilmaz, professor of computer sciences, received a $258,000 research and development grant from NSF. He’s conducting research on developing computer programming curriculum for students with autism. Photo courtesy of Abdu Arslanyilmaz

Abdu Arslanyilmaz, professor of computer science, said after his third time applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation, he received great news. Arslanyilmaz learned he would receive a $286,526 research and development grant from NSF for an in-depth study on how computer programming curriculum could be improved for students with autism spectrum disorder. 

For his research and development, Arslanyilmaz is partnering with Margaret Briley, a professor in special education, in the Beeghly College of Education. He’s also working with Potential Development High School with Students for Autism and the Rich Center for Autism. 

“About 100 proposals are submitted each year from many large research institutes, and about ten of them are usually awarded,” Arslanyilmaz said. 

He said this grant serves as a symbol of success for Youngstown State University. This specific research grant, called Computer Science for All, aims to improve the learning experience and give proper access to everyone in computer science education. 

“This is to do research to improve computer science for everybody, people with all different backgrounds, people with different characteristics,” he said. 

Arslanyilmaz explained they are now in phase one, beginning to conceptualize the research and make a plan. During the second and third phases, they will develop educational materials, like assessments, carry out workshops and observe and conduct research. 

“Our research is in creating and developing a successful curriculum for students with autism and reporting the results, whether the accessible curriculum we will be creating is effective or not,” he said. “NSF would like to see first the material that we are going to be developing and also the results that we are going to be reporting.” 

Margaret Briley, professor of teacher education in Beeghly, assists Arslanyilmaz to give helpful insight into the learning experience for students with autism. 

“I’ve worked with both the Rich Center and Potential Development in the past, and my primary responsibility is to look at adaptations or accommodations for the curriculum to teach students,” Briley said. “We will eventually be hiring teacher education students to work with the students next year, and I’ll be active in that.”

Briley agreed the NSF grant given to YSU speaks volumes for the university. 

“The NSF research is known internationally,” Briley said. “This is the first time the college of education has ever been involved in one.”

Students with autism could rarely find a computer programming curriculum right for them.

“Right now, there’s very few programs around the country that even offer students who have autism a computer coding,” she said. “They do get some technology instruction, but it’s usually for communication and socialization, not necessarily to prepare the students to be skilled in computer coding.” 

Carolyn Fernberg, high school coordinator at Potential Development, said she is excited to work with YSU to conduct research over the next two years. 

“We will be working with the current sixth graders now who will be coming to the high school next year as seventh graders,” Fernberg said. “These are the students who will be using the curriculum developed. The plan this year is to study the students, their learning styles … then build the curriculum and then next year, apply it to the students in the classroom.” 

Because few of the students have had access to computer programming education, Fernberg described this as a unique opportunity for the students’ growth. 

“It’s something they haven’t had a lot of exposure to. On our end at the school, we’re interested in seeing how they respond to it … tweaking it along the way with what works and what doesn’t work,” Fernberg said. “It’s going to be offered to all of our students, regardless of their functioning level within the classroom.” 

Fernberg hopes this one-of-a-kind research she is now involved in will be used nationwide to make computer programming accessible to all. 

“It’s not something that has a lot of research,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot out there for our kiddos, so finding out what works and what doesn’t work will be beneficial for students with autism all over the place, not just here at our school.”