Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Computational thinking in other disciplines.

While we wait for the (literal) flames to die down at the STOC business meeting (who'd have thought a two-tier PC would be so controversial), a thought on "computational thinking". 

I've been on PhD committees for students in other departments far removed from computer science. I'm there partly as an external person, and partly as someone who "understands computation" and can guide the student in a project that involves some nontrivial algorithmic thinking.

It's very striking to see how these students approach the notion of computing. They have strong engineering/math backgrounds, but they tend to view computational problems as black boxes for which the first idea that comes to mind is the correct answer. This is pernicious enough that when I try to nudge them to define the problem more generally, they have no idea what to do.

This is a common theme in disciplines that make use of computation. Everyone has their favorite biology story along these lines, but this article in Science magazine is a good example of the problem of scientists using code. In brief, they tend to use code as a blackbox without really understanding what the code does or why, or how to validate the results.

In my algorithms class, I emphasize the important of naming problems. Especially when one is trying to model a fuzzy real-world problem, it's very important to recognize named problems that might be hidden inside. But this very fundamental idea - that the problem comes first, and that by naming it we can recognize and understand this - is foreign to people not trained to think computationally. Rather, they think in terms of solutions, which is dangerous until they really know what they want to solve.

We talk a lot about computational thinking and the intellectual content of computer science. For anyone without CS training who wishes to make use of computational tools, this is one of the most important lessons to learn: how to name a problem.




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