The kick off speaker for the SIGCT Forum at NECC this year was Jeannette Wing from Carnegie Mellon and the National Science Foundation. Her paper Computational Thinking, CACM vol. 49, no. 3, March 2006 is a must read for, well, just about anyone in education or in the computing field in my opinion. I also recommend a PDF of slides that he has used for a number of computational thinking talks similar to the one given at the forum.

One of the questions I hear often is “what is computation?” Jeannette Wing defines “Computing is the automation of our abstractions” Computational thinking then becomes selecting the right abstractions and the right computer (where computers are defines much more broadly than just computing machines) to solve problems. I really like these descriptions because they really bring out how broad and wide ranging computational thinking really is.

Dr. Wing also talks about how important computational thinking is to research in all disciplines these days. She relates that using computers the help sequence the human genome helped many in the biology community start to appreciate computers and computational thinking as important tools in that field. Much of this relates to data. Scientists and researchers are collecting more data than they can store let alone analyze. So computers and computer learning are the only way sense can be made out of all this information.

The challenge for the education community that Dr. Wing brought up was “What are effective ways of learning (teaching)
computational thinking by (to) children
?” I see these as huge issues. Sure we can use programming to some extent. Tools like Kodu, Alice and Scratch and others make programming possible at younger ages. Although I think we have a huge shortage of people who are really prepared to teach the concepts. Concepts being of course much more important than the tools themselves.

Dr. Wing is an exciting speaker because her enthusiasm for the subject is clear, evident and contagious. It’s encouraging to have someone like her being at NSF. If you get as chance to hear her talk take advantage of it. And if not, read her paper and look through her presentation deck.