Center to use PROBE

Christine de Briffault Apr 1, 2007

A new skill is on the horizon for this generation of children. In addition to the typical reading, writing, and mathematics, students will be expected to know how to think like computer scientists.

By way of a three-year, $1.5 million grant from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft are teaming up to create the Carnegie Mellon Center for Computational Thinking.

The mission of this center is to promote computational thinking within computer science and other disciplines, such as psychology and business, for students and teachers.

The center will support PROBEs, or Problem-Oriented Explorations, as inspired by the Carnegie Mellon Aladdin Center, a center devoted to studying algorithms.

A PROBE is designed to bring together scientists involved in a wide range of fields, including academia, industry, and government, to focus on problems encountered in the real world.

PROBEs will facilitate the center’s mission by providing an intellectual base upon which new science can be invented and a way to quickly transfer results from one application area to another.

According to Jeanette Wing, head of the computer science department, PROBEs will cover topics such as “privacy, parallel and multi-core computing, data-intensive computing, embedded medical devices, and game theory.” Computational thinking will be the key to solving the real-world problems discussed in PROBEs.

The center will also support the spread of computational thinking to Carnegie Mellon and other schools and universities, including college students, K-12 students, and teachers.

Wing said that “computational learning should start at a younger age,” and she already has a “CS4All” summer program in place. The program, organized by Lenore Blum and Tom Cortina, professors of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, invites high school teachers to campus and exposes them to the possibilities of computing.

Junior computer science major Andrew Warshaver said, “It’s about time we caught up to the rest of the world and infiltrate while they’re young.”

In the March 2006 issue of Communications of the ACM, Wing stated that computational thinking is about using abstraction and automation to solve problems, design systems, and understand human behavior. To figure out the level of abstraction that will be useful, one must be able to decipher between insignificant data and relevant data.

Computational thinking is defining these abstractions. Algorithms, for instance, are procedures used to solve particular problems, and data types are structural representations of information. The ability to perform procedures in two or more levels of abstraction and determine the relationship between these levels is also computational thinking.

In a speech given by Wing on March 26 in Newell-Simon Hall, she used an example about elementary math to illustrate computational thinking: “In grade school, when you learn long division, you are learning a specific algorithm to divide one number into another; when you learn about sets, you are learning about a specific data type that enjoys certain algebraic properties that other data types do not. Sets are unordered and have no duplicate elements; sequences are ordered and might have duplicate elements.”

During the speech, she also said that abstraction and automation via computational thinking “give us the ability to scale beyond what one human can do in time or reach in space.”

According to Wing, some concepts that are important to understanding computer science and computational thinking are “complexity (computability, intractability), programming languages (syntax, semantics, compilation, interpretation, correctness), [and] computer architecture (processing units, memory/storage units).”

Computational thinking uses these concepts, and many others, to develop such tools as algorithms and heuristics.

The center will also support communication through Mind Swaps, meetings where researchers share data and decide how to approach significant problems in computer science.

Microsoft currently holds Mind Swaps for developers and researchers to exchange ideas about real-world problems and solutions.

In a press release issued by the School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon stated, “Carnegie Mellon itself is an example of how the power of computational thinking can energize disciplines across campus.”

To further facilitate this endeavor, a new class called Ways to Think Like a Computer Scientist is in the works for incoming first-years.

Josh Mann, a senior business major, said, “As time goes by, computer science and computational thinking will have a more important role in business as well as other fields, and a class like this will be beneficial to prepare students for successful careers.”