Why interdisciplinarity is the basis for Computional Thinking

The only living creature that can think is man. But soon computers will do the thinking for us – or will they? Alexander Repenning, professor of computer science at the FHNW and speaker at our Transform conference on 12 and 13 September, answered a few questions on this topic What do you understand by computational thinking?

Prof. Dr. Alexander Repenning

Thinking with the computer. In other words, not thinking like a computer or about computers, but using the computer as a thinking tool. For example, with simulations that humans have programmed, the computer can help make the consequences of human thinking visible. How important is computational thinking – today and in the future? Computational thinking is a core competence of the 21st Century Workforce. Without computational thinking, the Digital Revolution will eat the grandchildren of the Industrial Revolution. This means that the high specialisation that was shaped in the Industrial Revolution, and which still determines the concept of subject areas in schools, makes today’s society extremely vulnerable to being rationalised away by robots or artificial intelligence. An important aspect of computational thinking is the support of interdisciplinarity. People need to understand and be able to use the connections between disciplines. At what age should Computational Thinking lessons start? If children are interested themselves, they can start writing simple programmes in Grade 1, or even earlier. But at the same time, one has to be careful about forcing children to start programming too early. Well-intentioned “motivating” activities such as programming robots that are supposed to follow a line can quickly turn into “are we there yet? Situations. The computational thinking concepts that one would like to teach fourth graders, for example, to programme games and simulations, do not need any preparation in kindergarten or up to grade 3. Here, less is more. What is the easiest way to learn computational thinking? What is the best way to teach it? It needs a combination of pedagogical approaches that do not just replicate IKEA-style projects step-by-step and computational thinking tools that support the programming process as well as the creativity process. Teachers as well as students should repeat computational thinking as an iterative process of constant abstraction, automation and analysis to find solutions. It is very important to be project-oriented, but at the same time to address necessary abstractions, such as computational thinking patterns. As a person who is not familiar with IT, can you still learn or improve the ability to think computationally at an advanced age? Yes, definitely. However, it is important to first find an area of interest and then to use computational thinking as an approach to better understand this area. Then it is important to find suitable computational thinking tools. Is there a difference between boys and girls in terms of their talent for computational thinking? What are their practical experiences? We mainly focus on game design. From the competence perspective and the motivation perspective, there are hardly any differences. However, when you look at a finished game, you can often guess whether it was created by boys or girls.

About the person

Alexander Repenning is professor of computer science education at the FHNW and computer science professor at the University of Colorado. He leads the international Scalable Game Design Initiative. Repenning is a pioneer of block-based programming (aka drag and drop programming). He has worked in research and development at Asea Brown Boveri, Xerox PARC, Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard. Repenning is the creator of the AgentSheets and AgentCubes simulation and game information tools. Alexander Repenning will be speaking at the Transform conference on 13 September on the topic of “Computional Thinking for All”.

Transform Conference

The conference “TRANSFORM – Digital Skills for the Transformation of Disciplines, Business, and Government” is co-organised by the Institute Public Sector Transformation and Institute Digital Enabling in cooperation with national and international partners as a forum for the discussion of challenges around digital transformation. The Swiss Informatics Society is an event partner. The conference programme and the registration form can be found here.

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