Education Funding

Center to Support Instruction on ‘Computational Thinking’

By Debra Viadero — April 03, 2007 1 min read
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Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and the Microsoft Corp. have joined forces to create a center to pioneer and promote studies in K-12 and higher education in the emerging field of computational thinking.

“Computer technology has rapidly transformed education, commerce, and entertainment,” said Jeannette M. Wing, who heads the university’s computer-science department. “But more profoundly, computer science is transforming how new science is discovered in fields as varied as biology, astronomy, statistics, and economics.”

Scientists employ computer-science methods, for instance, to model weather systems and business markets.

Officials from the university and Microsoft unveiled plans for the center, which is being underwritten with a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the computer-software giant, during a March 26 computer-science conference at the university.

Ms. Wing said the center would bring together researchers from various disciplines to tackle real-world problems. Some of the topics staked out for study include computer-privacy issues, e-commerce, and embedded medical devices.

In the field of education, center scholars will develop curricula in computational thinking for schools and colleges.

“At the grade-school level, children already learn these things, although they may not realize it,” Ms. Wing said.

‘Mindswaps’ Planned

She pointed out, for instance, that students learn algorithms when they study long division, and they practice “caching”—another computer-science term—when they fill their backpacks for the day. The new courses will make those connections more explicit and help children learn to think like computer scientists.

What is Computational Thinking?

Computational thinking is an emerging field that draws on computer-science methods and concepts to solve problems, design systems, or study human behavior, according to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. Computational thinking is at work, for instance, when scientists develop computer models to study cancer-cell growth, weather systems, or business markets.

The launch of the center extends a continuing effort by the university to expand educators’ perceptions of computer science. Along with the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Carnegie-Mellon already sponsors summer workshops to expose high school teachers to the wide range of potential careers in the field for their students.

Ms. Wing said the center’s third task would be hosting annual “mindswaps”—meetings where Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon researchers will share data, solve problems, and begin to collaborate on bigger challenges in the field.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Center to Support Instruction On ‘Computational Thinking’

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