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Thinking like a computer brings wide learning benefits

School districts integrate computational thinking to boost the number of computer science graduates
PINT-SIZE COMPUTERS—First-graders, above, at Elizabeth Forward School District start learning how to think like a computer.
PINT-SIZE COMPUTERS—First-graders, above, at Elizabeth Forward School District start learning how to think like a computer.

A large gap between the number of computer science graduates and available jobs has led an increasing number of districts to boost instruction in computational thinking. The concept refers to the thought process of expressing a solution to a problem with a series of sequenced steps, like in a recipe.

It’s a critical part of computer programming and it can assist learning in all disciplines.

In 2015, 60,000 college graduates earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And according to the most recent numbers, 523,000 computer science job openings remain. The biggest source of all new jobs in the U.S. is in computer science.

Not only is computer science the largest source of all new wages, it is one of students’ top three areas of interest, behind art and performing arts, says Hadi Partovi, founder and COO of code.org, a nonprofit that aims to improve access to computer science.

So, districts are integrating computational thinking at young ages to boost the number of computer science graduates. Elizabeth Forward School District in Pennsylvania began teaching computational thinking in its K8 curriculum six years ago after seeing that enrollment in grade 9 computer science classes had dropped.

Using loops

Fifth-graders plant seeds in a virtual garden to learn about the “loops” required to write Swift code. The activity, which uses Apple’s Swift Playground app, gives students multiple directions for each seed and each row. The solution is to write one group of commands and repeat it multiple times using a loop.

“As more and more professions become technology dependent, computational thinking becomes the key to unlocking new discoveries,” says Ward Cochenour, instructional technology specialist at Elizabeth Forward.

Teaching computational thinking is as important as teaching shapes, number sequencing and language skills, says Shelley Pasnik, director of Center for Children and Technology, which researches technology education.

As early as kindergarten, teachers can create computational thinking stations with computer tablets and dancing. “Dance moves include patterns,” says Pasnik, also vice president of nonprofit Education Development Center. “Stomp, stomp, slide. How do you communicate your moves to the next dancer? How do you relate to one another? That’s important.”

Computational thinking is the process of taking the skills from computer science and applying them to other disciplines. Such skills include data mining and organizing, using algorithms to create solutions and showing data through an abstraction.

In middle school, computational thinking shows students that the problem-solving process needs to be broken down into steps, David Evans of NSTA says. For example, students can mine data on the internet regarding snowfall in the 1960s and 1970s, when their parents were children. They can compare it to the snowfall of the past 10 years.

Data mining and simulations are both examples of computational thinking. Students use data mining skills and then create simulations to see if it really did snow more in the past.

The students can then present their findings scientifically and use them to either prove or disprove that their climate is warming.


Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in Washington state.