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Karen Brennan

Associate Professor of Education
Karen Brennan

Degree:  Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (2012); M.A., The University of British Columbia, (2007); B.Ed., The University of British Columbia, (2005); B.S., The University of British Columbia, (2003)
Email:  [javascript protected email address]
Phone:  617.495.4341
Personal Site:   Link to Site
Office:  Longfellow 334
Office Hours Contact:  Email the Faculty Member
Faculty Assistant:  Claire Goggin


Karen Brennan is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research is primarily concerned with the ways in which learning environments — in and out of school, online and face-to-face — can be designed to support young people's development as computational creators. Many of Brennan's research and teaching activities focus on constructionist approaches to designing learning environments — encouraging learning through designing, personalizing, connecting, and reflecting, and maximizing learner agency.

Some current projects include: Cultures of Computing, an examination of how K-12 teachers design learning environments to support novice programmers, focusing on teachers' design intentions and how those intentions are enacted; ScratchEd, a model of professional learning for educators who support computational literacy with the Scratch programming language, involving the development of a 15,000-member online community, in-person events, and curricular materials; and Cultivating Computational Thinking, an investigation of the concepts, practices, and perspectives that young people develop through computational design activities.

Before joining HGSE, Brennan completed her Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, as well as an MA in curriculum studies, B.Ed. in computer science and mathematics, and B.Sc. in computer science and mathematics at the University of British Columbia.

Click here to see a full list of Karen Brennan's courses.

Areas of Expertise
Sponsored Projects

EcoMOD: Integrating Computational Thinking into Ecosystems Science Education via Modeling in Immersive Virtual Worlds (2016-2019)
National Science Foundation

Under Track 1 Design and Development of the STEM+C program, the Ecolearn group at Harvard University will develop and study ecosystems science curricula that introduce modeling concepts and processes to third graders, based on computational thinking and programming. Research has revealed that even young students can demonstrate sophisticated reasoning and understandings related to complex causal patterns and features, and can engage in computer programming activities. The EcoMOD (Model/Modify, Observe, Design) project will build on and extend our prior EcoMUVE curriculum for middle school, using a design-based research approach to combine an immersive virtual environment with hands-on interactive modeling through a scaffolded computational interface. EcoMOD will offer links between multiple forms of representation to help connect visual models to dynamic representations of ecosystem interactions in a simulated forest setting. The curriculum will provide a highly supported, object-oriented programming environment similar to Scratch or Starlogo NOVA with a simple, scaffolded block interface, customized to focus on ecosystems modeling and designed specifically for younger children. EcoMOD's learning goals in habitats and food webs are taught using a systems perspective, shifting the instructional focus from comprehension of static representations to consequential student interaction with dynamic computational models.

EcoMOD will explore these research questions:
RQ1 - Using a design-based research methodology, which approaches to abstraction and representation offer the best scaffolding to students? Given this scaffolding, to what extent are students able to construct, modify, and interpret computational models that represent ecological concepts in EcoMOD?

RQ2- To what extent do students show gains in understanding causal dynamics in ecosystem science content knowledge and affective measures after using EcoMOD?

RQ3 - How does teachers' use of the curricula unfold in practice? What types of supports are necessary prior to and during the implementation?

RQ4- To what extent do teachers see usage of the EcoMOD curriculum in typical school settings as desirable and as feasible from a practical perspective?

EcoMOD will develop measures and methods for assessing the outcomes of this third grade curriculum on students and teachers. The resultant proof of concept, case-based data can inform future research on controlled comparison studies.

ScratchED: Working with Teachers to Develop Design-based Approaches to the Cultivation of Computational Thinking (2013-2013)
National Science Foundation

The research team at Harvard is primarily responsible for four areas of the ScratchEd project research and development activities.

1. Online Community: The ScratchEd online community ( is a central component of this work, and serves as a space for K-12 educators to share stories, exchange resources, ask questions, and connect with other educators. We:

•manage the last round of design revisions for the online community,
•promote awareness of - and participation in - the community, and
•continue collection, analysis, and presentation of participation/impact data.

2. Gatherings: In addition to the online community, the project's model of teacher professional development involves face-to-face and online synchronous gatherings. In support of the gatherings, we:

• continue designing, conducting, and studying the monthly face-to-face gatherings for local educators,
• continue hosting face-to-face introductory workshops for educators who are Scratch novices, and
• conduct data analysis and write-up for the online gatherings.

3. Resources: An important product from Year 2 of the ScratchEd project was the development of a curriculum guide. The guide, a draft of which was released in September 2011, needs to be updated, given the release of the next generation of the Scratch software and the classroom-based research conducted in Year 2. We:

• revise the curriculum guide draft,
• develop supplementary resources (e.g. videos),
• manage the graphic design process, and
• release and promote the updated version of the curriculum guide.

4. Conceptual Framing: The ScratchEd work has been guided by the articulation of two central concepts: computational thinking (an articulation of what kids are learning when they engage in an activity such as programming with Scratch) and design-based learning (an approach to learning that emphasizes learner agency through designing, personalizing, sharing, and reflecting). To further develop these concepts, we:

• contribute to the development of computational thinking assessment instruments, supporting the work of EDC (the project's external evaluators), and
• develop resources that support teachers' use of design-based learning approaches in the classroom.

5. Dissemination: Across all four of these areas of work, we continue dissemination to educators, researchers, and other interested groups through both informal (e.g. ScratchEd online community, Twitter, Facebook) and formal channels (e.g. journal articles, academic conferences).

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