Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Computational Thinking

As do many, our school offers enriching summer programs for our students which allow them the opportunity to explore areas of interest in a challenging yet informal, enjoyable format.  Our summer experiences offer knowledge expansion and skill development in areas ranging from athletics to fine arts to outdoor and environmental investigation. The summer camps that fall in my specific realm of responsibility are Computer Game Design and Mobile App Development. It was exciting to work with children of all ages as they developed apps pertaining to topics they are passionate about.  Our students developed mobile applications for such things as chess move tips, Mindcraft techniques, great camping sites, music and favorite fishing spots.  Students then proudly shared their creations.  To be honest, it was a highlight of my summer.

Mobile app development is becoming an essential part of our curriculum across all grade levels for a number of reasons. First, as digital natives, the daily use of a variety of mobile apps is familiar territory for our students. They have a fundamental understanding of the wide range of possibilities mobile apps provide.  Further, the discipline of brainstorming, ideation and mind mapping is an essential part of the app development process.  Carefully visualizing and planning the app’s function forces high level critical thinking.  Our students use Crescerance’s Mad Learn interface because its templates cater to younger, first-experience students but also allows older, tech-savvy students to develop more graphic and image rich, sophisticated mobile applications.  Students can also create, edit and embed their own code as they gain proficiency. MIT’s App Inventor is another example that is also gaining popularity.

I find that many girls are interested in creating apps because of the necessary design elements which must be incorporated throughout the development process. The task serves as a great entry experience which encourages females particularly.  The “cool” factor seems to mobilize our male students most.  Both are encouraged by their sense of accomplishment.  More and more, I think that it is important to embed experiences throughout our curriculum that provide opportunities for students to create and express themselves and their interests with technologies.

There is also a shift in education toward project based learning. “In project-based learning, students gain important knowledge, skills, and dispositions by investigating open ended questions to ’make meaning ‘that they transmit in purposeful ways.” (Krass & Boss, 2013) Setting goals, managing a timeline, brainstorming solutions, collaborating, revising and presenting to a pubic audience is a great way to reinforce executive function skills. Creating an innovative project using technology to demonstrate learning is an enjoyable, engaging way for students to develop and practice the use of computational thinking skills.

Programs that help students build coding skills abound.  Examples include Scratch, Hyperscore, Alice, Turtle Art, Game Maker and WeDo Robotics. Additionally, popular apps such as Tynker, Cargo-Bot, Lightbot, Bridge Building and Hopscotch further enable children to learn to think, problem solve and  develop passions, interests and abilities through exposure.  Additionally, researchers predict that employment opportunities in professions involving coding and programming are extremely promising.  Exposing our children early to the precepts of computational thinking serves them well and most importantly, it is fun!

This article appeared in Southern Distinction magazine. Volume 2:5 2014