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Teaching Computational Thinking Is the First Step to Bridging STEM Skills Gap

Educators already instill in their students many concepts of computer science.

Demystifying computer science to address the lack of inclusion of women and minorities in the field has been the mission of educators and school administrators over the past few years. The College Board created an AP class to teach deconstructed principles of computer science. Even President Obama weighed in.

One proposed solution has been to start students down the path of computer science earlier. In EdTech: Focus on K12s Fall 2016 issue, Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead the Way, wrote about this very topic.

“Students makes decisions about whether they’re good at math and science as early as second grade,” writes Bertram. “We have to inspire students at an earlier age, demystify subjects like computer science and help them understand how math and science are tools to solve problems rather than equations to solve for a test.”

Computational thinking — thinking like a computer and using concepts of computer science to solve problems — is one approach that teachers might already be using without even knowing it.

Sheena Vaidyanathan, a sixth grade computer science teacher in California’s Los Altos School District, says computational thinking is contained in most elements of problem solving that educators are constantly teaching their students.

“We are teaching computational thinking concepts as early as kindergarten when we teach students to process things with steps,” she says. “We just don’t think of it as related to computer science.”

Vaidyanathan says she believes teaching computational thinking is a more important and accessible step than teaching coding; learning to solve problems, she says, is more critical than getting bogged down in the specific details of the computer language used to solve them.

“If you can formalize the problem solving you already do, you can write out the steps for a computer to execute,” she says.

Incorporating Computational Thinking into Lessons with (and Without) Tech

Elements of this type of thinking are present in virtually every subject, Vaidyanathan says. Recognizing that, and finding lessons to highlight these elements, is what teachers can do to connect it to computer science.

One example she provides is using a spreadsheet to collect data. While it’s not exactly a coding tool, the spreadsheet has elements of code in it to analyze data.

Vaidyanathan also recommends Google’s Exploring Computational Thinking (ECT) tools and lesson plans. These use technology that students are already comfortable with — like computers and Google Sheets — and don’t introduce too many variables.

In one lesson for English class, students study the usage of the articles “a” and “an” by using pattern recognition and pattern generalization to develop a written algorithm. In another ECT lesson, students will play a guessing game similar to charades and collect data in a spreadsheet to learn about data analysis.

For students at South Fayette Intermediate school outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., computational thinking and STEAM are enriched in every lesson. An article on The Hechinger Report describes the addition of coding, 3D printing, computer-aided design and robotics into the regular curriculum.

“STEAM projects mingle with their regular lesson plans,” the article states. “For instance, one class of second-graders recently learned how to use simple circuits to make a game in which the correct answer to a double-digit math problem would light up a little light bulb.”

Some methods of teaching computational thinking don’t even involve technology at all. The website CS Unplugged aims at teaching the youngest of learners about computer science concepts through “engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.”

Magic tricks involving cards to teach error detection. Blank tablets used to teach network protocols. These are just two examples on CS Unplugged showing that teachers use what they have on hand to teach high-level concepts. And that’s precisely Vaidyanathan’s point.

“People who are not computer science teachers think of computational thinking as something that is really far out there and scary,” she says. “But they have to realize they already teach this.”

Nov 02 2016