Scholar Spotlight - Duncan Johnson

Laidlaw Scholar, Duncan Johnson, on shaping computer science curricula for young minds with Patch-Ed.
Scholar Spotlight - Duncan Johnson

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Duncan Johnson, a Tufts University Laidlaw Scholar, develops Patch-Ed: Bridging Programming Languages for Young Learners.

Research title: Patch-Ed: creating curricula to effectively transition young computer science students from block-based to text-based programming.

My research last summer focused on developing a creativity-focused curriculum for Patch, the innovative online coding platform built by BX Coding, the nonprofit I founded in 2019. Patch aims to bridge the educational gap for middle school students transitioning from block-based programming languages like Scratch to text-based languages like Python. Scratch is an intuitive, block-based graphical programming language catered to young learners. Scratch simplifies coding and fosters creativity, but moving to professional text-based programming languages like Python presents challenges due to their syntactic complexity and less visually engaging nature. Patch addresses this issue by creating a direct correlation between Scratch blocks and Python functions, leveraging students’ familiarity with Scratch to ease the intimidating transition.

With the support of my research mentor, Tufts professor Dr. Ethan Danahy, I built a 20-hour curriculum utilizing Patch and piloted it with 25 middle school students in summer workshops run by BX Coding. At BX Coding, we’re committed to increasing accessibility to computer science education, which is why Patch is a free and open-source coding platform. Patch-Ed, the curriculum I built for my research project last summer, is the beginning of a free curriculum that any educator can use to teach coding with Patch in their classroom. With Patch and Patch-Ed, we’re building the future of inclusive computer science education.  

Pitching Patch at the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

I taught myself to code in middle school, but it was a challenging process. Then, after my freshman year of high school, I teamed up with my friend Elliot to create a week-long summer coding camp to support the computer science learning of middle school students in our community. After that first summer, I fell in love with teaching and over the past five years, we’ve expanded to teach over 300 students in computer science and engineering. During our hundreds of hours of teaching, we’ve realized that both learning and teaching computer science are really difficult, so we’re building free and open-source software and curricula to support students and educators around the world. Patch is our primary software project, and Patch-Ed, my Laidlaw research project, is the curriculum that educators can use to bring Patch into their classrooms. 

What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?

The most memorable moment from my Laidlaw experience was the leadership retreat with my cohort in May 2023. We spent two days completing leadership challenges, brainstorming for our research and leadership projects, and tackling obstacles on the ropes course. More memorably, we had great conversations over some really good food and I was able to learn so much about my cohort members and their diverse set of research areas. 

What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced was finding my Leadership in Action project for this summer. I originally connected with a STEM education nonprofit in Rwanda that a Tufts classmate had worked with previously, and we were planning for me to lead some computer science programs for the students in their community. However, as we refined the specifics over a few months, we realized that because of my schedule and the school schedule in Rwanda, it would be difficult to put together the project. With months of planning gone, I reached out to my research mentor for support. He connected me with Karkhana Samuha, a STEM education nonprofit in Nepal that Tufts had collaborated with in the past. Because of the relationship I built with my research mentor last summer, he gave the folks at Karkhana Samuha a testimonial to my work ethic and abilities that made a big difference in Karkhana Samuha wanting to work with me this summer for my LiA. I learned how valuable it can be to build strong relationships with mentors and then reach out to those mentors when I need support.

Teaching a Python Coding Lesson on “Wacky Friday”.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar has been about the people I’ve met through the program. I’ve developed fantastic relationships with the scholars in my cohort at Tufts University, they’re all impressive and inspiring people who are a joy to be around. I also met my research advisor Professor Danahy through the Laidlaw Scholars program, and he’s become an invaluable mentor for all of my projects.

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

I’m inspired by the work that Sal Khan has done with Khan Academy. He’s worked for years to make education more accessible worldwide, and he uses the intersection of technology and education to reach hundreds of millions of students. Rather than locking educational materials behind a paywall, Khan Academy is working to teach students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, which I admire.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I hope to live in a world where every student is exposed to computer science and engineering, and that any student interested in computer science or engineering has the ability to learn and explore with the support of inspiring and knowledgeable educators. I also hope that the fields of computer science and engineering become a welcoming place for all students, regardless of their background.

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Currently Binging: The Good Place

📚 My top book recommendation: 

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

🎶 My anthem: The Other Side of Paradise by Glass Animals

🎵 Podcast obsession: Hidden Brain

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: 

A Tropikale smoothie from Tufts’ Kindlevan cafe.


You can find Duncan on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Duncan's work, check out his startup, BX Coding, and his research.

Duncan is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Tufts University. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

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⚡️ Keir Chauhan, a Laidlaw Scholar at University College London on the power of birds in bridging humanity and nature.

⚡️ Lucy Nyamaah, a Laidlaw Scholar at Oxford University's Saïd Business School on pushing past gender norms and envisioning a female-led future in the energy sector.

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