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Northwestern graduate student Emily Wolin, right, demonstrates how she used a computational thinking exercise in a sixth-grade earth science class she helped teach.  Wolin was a presenter at an event about changes in K-12 science and math education held on Wednesday.

“Computational thinking” critical for new K-12 standards

by Stephanie Sunata
Nov 29, 2012

More than 70 Chicagoland educators didn’t show up at school on Wednesday afternoon, but they were still on the job -- discussing how their future lesson plans could be improved.

At a a workshop at Niles North High School, sponsored by Northwestern University’s “Reach for the Stars” program, the educators got an update on a new proposal to use “computational thinking” to strengthen K-12 science and math learning.

Next Generation Science Standards is a privately funded, nationwide movement that is drafting the new K-12 science and math standards, many of which include computational thinking requirements.

Computational thinking, used by scientists and engineers to solve problems, breaks complicated issues into smaller questions, which can be solved using models and other techniques common in computer science. The system doesn’t require the use of computers, but it is based on the approach computer scientists paved.

“It’s not just learning the facts of science, but the process of science,” said Michelle Paulsen, one of the event’s organizers.

For example, a science teacher could use computational models to determine the location of black holes based on the movement of nearby stars. Another example at the event used a computer program to simulate how Boyle’s law explains changes in pressure, volume and temperature.

In the past, Paulsen said, many K-12 teachers simply assumed some kids were good at problem solving and some weren’t. Those educators didn’t teach how to problem solve, she said, and as a result, their students had to play catch-up when they got to college.

High school physics teacher Mark Vondracek said lessons on computational thinking could remedy that problem.

Teaching computational thinking in primary education could help students prepare for any type of career because it improves critical thinking skills, he said, and also teaches students how to efficiently use technology, which is prevalent in every profession.

Vondracek, who has been teaching high school for 18 years, most of that time at Evanston Township High School, said the “traditional way” of teaching science at the K-12 level was for students to follow a step-by-step lab manual and fill in the blanks with data.

Now, there is a push to have students use computational thinking to determine how to set up an experiment, or create models to reach their conclusions, Vondracek said. “If your students don’t buy into that, remind them that every computer game they play is a simulation,” Vondracek told the audience during a panel discussion at the workshop.

Video games are a great way to get students to think computationally, he said. One of his homework assignments is to require students to go home and play a video game. The students download a program that records their gameplay and then later, in class, they watch the videos frame by frame and try to determine how realistic the physics are in each game, he said.

If students know the distance between two points in the video game, Vondracek said, they can determine how fast a character runs by measuring how long it takes to get from one point to the other.

They can also determine if the virtual acceleration of gravity matches the well-accepted real-world rate of 9.8 meters per second squared.

Technology plays a key role in computational thinking because computers can solve equations or make simulations that are difficult for people to do by hand. But computational modeling can be done with pencil and paper as well, Vondracek said.

Though researchers may be familiar with this way of thinking, many younger students haven’t been exposed to it.

Graduate student Emily Wolin, 25, said in an interview that she didn’t have formal training with computational modeling until her first year of graduate school at Northwestern University.

“I’m jealous of the kids who have high school teachers teaching them this stuff,” Wolin said. “They’ll definitely have a greater advantage.”

Last year Wolin was part of Northwestern’s Reach for the Stars program, in which science, technology, engineering and math graduate students help teach middle and high school classes. Those lessons are based on computational thinking methods, and Wolin said that when she started she wasn’t sure how her sixth grade students would handle that type of thinking.

“I was really surprised with how well they did with it,” Wolin said.

It is never too early to integrate computational thinking in the classroom, said Vondracek, the Evanston high school teacher.

“Young children are natural scientists,” he said. “They live through trial and error and learn from their mistakes.”