This computer scientist is working to make the field more inclusive

As a doctoral student in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, Minji Kong is interested in developing new digital technologies that will improve computer science learning in K-12 classrooms.

Born in South Korea, Kong moved to Singapore when she was eight years old and finished her elementary education. Her family came to the United States when she was thirteen, settling in New Jersey and then Delaware, where Kong finished high school.

Growing up in different countries, surrounded by new cultures and languages—Kong speaks Korean, Mandarin, Spanish and English—influenced her decision to pursue research in computer science education, or the study of how humans learn and teach computing.

“Travelling makes you appreciate different people, their backgrounds and the stories that they tell,” says Kong. However, K-12 educators are in need of more tools to foster computer science learning environments that are responsive to a diverse population of students. “With the rise of computer technology around the world, it is more important than ever for computer science to be an inclusive field.”

Kong enrolled in the honors program at the University of Delaware in 2016 to pursue a degree in Computer Science. Under the guidance of her research advisor, professor Lori Pollock, Kong completed an honors thesis describing a scalable logging and data mining approach that could help teachers to monitor in real time how students learn to code within a programming environment known as Scratch, a block-based visual programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab to teach coding to children ages 8 to 16. In other words, rather than writing code, children create programs by dragging and dropping blocks that contain discrete pieces of information.

“Programming in Scratch becomes this really naturally creative activity because it encourages whoever is using the Scratch environment to tinker around with images, music, sounds and text,” Kong said. “It emphasizes that creative component in programming, and a lot of K-12 educators support it.”

Kong graduated with distinction in 2020. Rather than going into industry, however, Kong wanted to pursue her research further in the computer science doctoral program, where she continues to study under Pollock while coordinating educational research activities with Chrystalla Mouza, Distinguished Professor of Teacher Education and Director of UD’s School of Education.

Through her research, Kong has learned that there are very few tools to support teachers who are using Scratch for in-class activities, limiting the ability to provide personalized learning for students. In response, Kong is developing what are known as “Teaching Augmentation Tools” for Scratch. These include real-time analysis of student programming behaviors, and a dashboard that will gather and display those learning analytics, to more easily identify students who are in need of additional support.

Kong cautions that the research is still in its early stages. She still needs to meet with teachers to learn more about their experiences using Scratch in the classroom.

To help support her research, Kong was nominated by the Department of Computer and Information Sciences to receive the Robert W. Gore Fellowship, which is awarded to two College of Engineering doctoral students each year. Kong became the first doctoral student from her department to become a Gore Fellow.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” said Kong, adding that the fellowship was a bit serendipitous, as her very first undergraduate computer science course was in Gore Hall. “Dr. Gore and his family’s impact on the university have always surrounded me. My computer science career began in a space that the Gore family created for the broader university community, and now, with the support of the College of Engineering, I’m able to carry on Dr. Gore’s incredible legacy. It is a great honor.”