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21st-Century Literacy Requires Computational Thinking
So, are you trying to train the next generation of software engineers, or are you trying to educate well-rounded people?
This was the gist of a question we fielded recently at an informational event. I'm helping to open Excel Public Charter School next month, a new school in Washington state. Our school will emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, specifically focusing on computer science for every student starting in seventh grade.
STEM and computer science education have received a lot of attention lately. Looking past the false dichotomy in the question above (software engineers can be well-rounded), this person speaks to an important concern about jumping on the computer science bandwagon. It's generally accepted that access to computer science is important, but to what end? Why do we think that every student should study computer science?
Computational thinking is a term popularized by Jeanette Wing in 2006 that describes a new way of thinking about computer science education. It values the ways that humans, not just machines, think about problems using ideas from computer science. Computational thinking can happen in every class because its skills and habits can be taught in broad ways. Computational thinking happens when students organize their thoughts for an essay in an outline. This uses the computer science skill of procedural decomposition, breaking a big job into smaller jobs.
Computational thinking happens when students analyze lab data in science class using a spreadsheet, looking for trends and patterns, with data analysis a critical application of computer science. Computational thinking happens when students create their own music, repeating and layering sounds and rhythms to create a masterpiece. Repetition and structure are constantly on computer scientists' minds. Also, computational thinking happens when students learn to program. The point is that computational thinking is much more than just programming computers, and it includes many things that students already do.
At Excel, a commitment to developing computational thinking skills means that our students will study computer science so that they can solve real problems in all of their classes. They'll make beautiful art using the computer as a programmable paintbrush. They'll build robots that can collect information about the world around us. They'll analyze "big data" and other statistics so they can be critical readers of news. Along the way, they'll learn how computers work, how to write programs in a variety of programming languages, and how to realize the potential of computing. As Wing states, it's all about learning to "bend computation to your needs."
When schools emphasize computational thinking in interesting contexts and not just traditional computer science, all students can be empowered by computing. They can choose to become software engineers, or use what they've learned in other professions. Mark Guzdial asserts that "computing is a new kind of literacy that is critical for all professions in the 21st century."
At Excel, it's not ultimately about creating a pipeline of engineers. We want every student to see themselves as computational thinkers who can creatively and effectively leverage computing in whatever they choose to do. We believe that these students can change the world. Computational thinking is for everyone.
Taylor Williams is a founding math and computer science teacher at Excel Public Charter School and is a 2012 Washington TFA alumnus. Excel is actively seeking exceptional candidates to support their growing computational thinking program, both in and out of the classroom.