Autonomous Vehicles Explored Using Inquiry Based Learning

The term Computer Science has become somewhat synonymous with programming. While programming is a valuable focal point, there are other fundamental aspects that must be considered and included in order to provide effective instruction. The five skills identified by the South Carolina State Department of Education as necessary for students to be literate in Computer Science are:

1. Foster an inclusive computing culture
2. Collaborate around computing
3. Recognize, define, and analyze computational problems
4. Create, test, and refine computational artifacts
5. Communicate about computing

These fundamental skills will be developed in my future classroom on a continual basis through the use of inquiry and discovery. For this paper, I am going to work through an example of the inquiry process featuring autonomous vehicles as the central issue.

KITT from Knight Rider

The concept of autonomous vehicles is far from new. An example of an autonomous vehicle, KITT from Knight Rider, can be seen in entertainment as early as 1982. A brief list of KITT’s high tech features includes: Computer Artificial Intelligence (AI), Turbo Boost, Voice Synthesizer, Olfactory Sensor, Flame Thrower, Seat Ejection System and a Homing Device. (In total, if the car was to actually be manufactured, KITT’s production cost was estimated to be $27,123,021.76 in 2013.)

Today, autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality. In August of 2016, the Ford company announced that it intends to have fully autonomous vehicles by the year 2021 (which is now only 4 years away) (Etherington , 2016). With this knowledge, I would pose the following questions to my students, “What does this mean to us as consumers? As Computer Scientists?” The goal of the inquiry is to lead the students through guided instruction, as recommended by Frey and Fischer (2010), to investigate the ethics, functionality, and Human — Computer Interaction of autonomous vehicles.

To investigate the ethics associated with autonomous vehicles, students will be asked to form opinions based on sources they find during their research process. They would be allowed to use online articles such as The Ethics of Autonomous Cars (Lin 2013 ) or a news article such as The driver who died in a Tesla crash using Autopilot ignored at least 7 safety warnings (Fung 2017). Students would then be asked to share their opinions in a class discussion. This will help develop their ability for argumentation as emphasized by Frey and Fisher (2010) who state, “The ability to engage in argumentation and debate is a measure of an adolescent’s growing ability to respond with logical and ethical claims to support or defend a position.” I do not want to provide the students with an answer and fortunately, with this issue there is no real correct answer. This extremely relevant topic of autonomous vehicles will help to evaluate and foster a computing culture where members are active in participation.

To explore the potential functionality of the vehicles, students will be asked to assess the skills necessary for driving. Depending on the age of the class, many students may already be driving so this will be an effective way to connect with their personal experience. Different areas of autonomous functionality that is currently available in cars and can be discussed with students may include lane deviation or crash detection.

One interesting aspect would be to evaluate the need for a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. In the video above, the Ford representative talked about the complete removal of these components in future cars. In a conceptual car for the movie iRobot, the autonomous vehicle had a hidden steering wheel for manual takeover by the driver. Students would be asked to evaluate the positive and negative effects of such changes. This topic will enable students to recognize the problems associated with autonomous vehicles and analyze various ways to solve them.

To explore the concepts of Human-Computer Interaction, students will explore different interfaces to learn what it means to create an effective layout. An example of an interface the students could easily relate to would be websites. Almost everyone can remember a time that they had to interact with a website that was completely inefficient and confusing. I want students to critique the websites and tell me what it is that they do not like. This will lead to a deeper discussion of why they think that this might be and will culminate with the students creating website layouts that are more user-friendly.

Using the inquiries above, students would develop a prototype solution to a specific problem related to autonomous vehicles they have determined to be important. It could be an example of a car that incorporates various technological advances to solve problems. It could also be an example of an interface that the driver will use to interact with the vehicle. There are many different types of prototypes that range from a paper copy, a model, a PowerPoint, or even a functioning application. This variety will allow students of varying levels of skill to share the knowledge they have obtained. The prototype the students develop will fulfill the skill standard of creating computational artifacts. Additionally these prototypes will be developed in groups so students must work together and develop their interpersonal skills and collaborate around computing. As Frey and Fisher pointed out, “A major purpose of collaborative learning is that it is an opportunity for students to consolidate their understanding about concepts they are learning” (2010).

As a culminating activity, students will present their prototype to the class. This will allow their knowledge and understanding of the problem they presented to be assessed. It will also allow me to assess each student’s ability to communicate about computing with their peers which will require an element of technical knowledge and jargon. Finally, students will be able to use the prototype presentation to show their creativity and their ability to make and support their decisions through personal anecdotes and empirical evidence.

Within a singular inquiry, all five skills are able to be incorporated that are necessary for students to be literate in Computer Science. This practice will be applied to all inquiries throughout the year in order to encourage students to develop the skills required to independently navigate today’s world of advanced technology.


Etherington, D. (2016, August 16). Ford to ship self-driving cars without steering wheels, brake or gas pedals by 2021. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from

Fisher, D., Frey, N. and Lapp, D. (2010), Responding When Students Don’t Get It. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54: 57–60. doi:10.1598/JAAL.54.1.6

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2010). Motivation Requires a Meaningful Task. The English Journal, 100(1), 30–36. Retrieved from

Lin, P. (2013, October 08). The Ethics of Autonomous Cars. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from

Fung, B. (2017, June 20). The driver who died in a Tesla crash using Autopilot ignored at least 7 safety warnings. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from

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