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People decorative Hillary Swanson


Hillary Swanson

Incoming Faculty Spring 2020

Office Hours: By Appointment


Throughout her classes and writings, Hillary likes to share her favorite Einstein quote: “The whole of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.” This idea has been one of the driving forces behind Hillary’s research curiosity. Her work explores how scientific theory-building can help students refine their everyday thinking.

Hillary brings years of experience as a classroom teacher to her academic work. She taught high school physics, chemistry, and math for six years at High Tech High, a project-based school in San Diego, before transitioning to research.

Hillary is interested in thinking carefully about how learning happens. Her work focuses on the process of knowledge construction and knowledge refinement. Hillary is drawing a detailed, fine-grained picture of how learning happens over time. She has worked at the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling (CCL) and Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Lab (TIDAL) at Northwestern University before coming to join the ITLS faculty.

Students who are interested in epistemology, scientific knowledge construction, and the role of computational tools will be especially interested in Hillary’s work.

Featured Work

The Theory Building Project

The goal of this project is to compare how kids design and construct theories of scientific phenomena, including computational models, by having kids engage with scientific practices and produce written theories. This project will be implemented as a two-week unit for middle school students.


Computational Thinking in Science 

In this project, Hillary is working to enrich STEM curriculums with learning materials and lessons that engage kids with science practices. Her team created a taxonomy, data practices, modeling practices, and assessments to examine how students develop expertise through these tools and lessons.  She works alongside Uri Wilensky and Michael Horn at Northwestern University. This grant is funded by Spencer and NSF. For more information, see

The Patterns Project 

The goal of this project is to build a middle school curriculum that helps kids develop the conceptual foundations for understanding dynamical systems thinking. The project team traced how students understood patterns and developed their own scientific models. Hillary worked alongside Andy diSessa at UC Berkeley where this project was funded by the Spencer Foundation. For more information, see

Research Focus

Broadly, Hillary’s work explores how students’ everyday thinking can play a productive role in their science learning. More specifically, she investigates how classroom instruction can be designed to meaningfully engage students in scientific theory building in order to help them refine their thinking and develop theory-building competencies. In a related strand of research, Dr. Swanson investigates students’ joint development of scientific knowledge and computational thinking practices through engagement in computationally-rich science curriculum. Her current research revolves around the following questions:

  • What does an intellectually honest version of scientific theory building look like in the middle school classroom?
  • What are the ways of engaging in theory building that the students are demonstrating that lie on a continuum with the ways scientists engage in theory building?
  • How does engaging in scientific theory building help students get better at theory building?
  • How does engaging in scientific theory building help students refine their everyday thinking
  • How is failure productive in the creative process?
  • How can dissent be productive in learning communities?                                         


ITLS 3120: Design 1

ITLS 6760: Grant Writing

ITLS 6560: Project Management  

Theory building for learning scientists (In Development)


PhD, Science and Mathematics Education - University of California at Berkeley

BA, Physics, Asian Studies Minor  -Colorado College

Selected Publications

See C.V or Google Scholar for a comprehensive list of publications.

Swanson, H. (in press) Refining student thinking through scientific theory building. In E. Manalo (Ed.) Deeper Learning, Dialogic Learning, and Critical Thinking: Research- Based Strategies for the Classroom. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

Swanson, H., Anton, G., Bain, C., Horn, M., Wilensky, U. (in press). Computational thinking in the high school science classroom. In S. Kong, and H. Abelson (Eds.) Computational Thinking Education. Singapore: Springer.

Pearl, H., Swanson, H., & Horn, M. (2019). Coordi: A virtual reality application for reasoning about mathematics in three dimensions. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘19 extended abstracts).

Swanson, H., & Arastoopour Irgens, G. (2019, March). Integrating computational thinking in STEM classrooms.Webinar for the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education.

Swanson, H. (2019, April). Cultivating a theoretical turn-of-mind. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, Canada.

Swanson, H., & Collins, A. (2018). How failure is productive in the creative process: Refining student explanations through theory-building discussion.Thinking Skills and Creativity, 30, 54-63.

Swanson, H., Arastoopour Irgens, G., Bain, C., Hall, K., Woods, P., Rogge, C., Horn, M., Wilensky, U. (2018). Characterizing computational thinking in high school science. In J. Kay, & R. Luckin (Eds.), Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age. Making the Learning Sciences Count: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference of the Learning Sciences Vol. 2, 871-878. London, United Kingdom: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Swanson, H. (2017, June). Noticing change in rate. In D. Trninic (Chair), Embodied patterns of knowing: investigating the role of rhythm in cognition and development. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, San Francisco, CA.