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What does computational thinking mean for each of those sciences? What are the tools and techniques that come with computational thinking? And how will they help each discipline solve a set of problems?
That’s where the Center for Computational Thinking comes in. It will take new approaches to problem solving by putting computing at the core. The center was made possible by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from Microsoft. Chutani is on its steering committee, which determines which projects the center funds. The center exists in the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and has three priorities.
- PROBEs, or problem-oriented explorations. PROBEs are explorations of finding solutions to problems inspired by the real world. Teams of students and faculty work together to come up with solutions to a specific problem that can then be generalized to solve a problem applicable to a domain possibly different from the one that originally inspired the problem. The first PROBE will be on parallel thinking.
- MindSwaps: These are annual, one-day events for Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft researchers, students, and faculty to get together and share data resources and collaborate on challenges facing the field of computing. The first MindSwap will be on privacy.
- In addition, the center will develop and disseminate courses and curricula suitable for graduate and undergraduate students, as well as K–12 classes. The message here: Today’s young people, armed with computational thinking, can solve the big problems of the world that previous generations could not.
The Center for Computational Thinking is moving forward without Wing. Although she is still officially the director of the center, she has taken a leave of absence from Carnegie Mellon to become assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation (the same post that Carnegie Mellon’s Nico Habermann held from 1991 to 1993). In the post, Wing will guide and manage funding for the federal agency, which supports research in computer and information science and engineering. The appointment says a lot about the culture of innovation at Carnegie Mellon.
“It is arguably the most powerful position in the federal government related to computer science,” says Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon. “Jeannette is responsible for something like $500 million in funding for computer science. She’ll be a very important voice—maybe the most important voice—when it comes to representing computer science within the government.”
At Carnegie Mellon, it’s evident that computational thinking is embraced across the University. There are 12 degree programs or minors that have the name “computational” in the title, such as computational neuroscience, computational finance, and computational and statistical learning.
And glimpses of the idea in practice are almost everywhere.
“I’ve started to see how I use computing principles in my life more and more,” says Carnegie Mellon computer science lecturer Tom Cortina. He runs a summer workshop called Computer Science for High School (CS4HS) that features ways for high school educators to incorporate computational thinking into their classes.
“Doing laundry, for example, now has ‘pipelining’ written all over it. Or when I go through my bank statements at home and need to organize them, I immediately think about the best sort to use so I can get the work done quickly. The list goes on and on. What I see is that everyone can use these ideas to improve their lives, not just computer scientists.”
Jonathan Szish is a freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter.