12/12/2016 07:42 am ET

Encoding a Next Generation

In my last post I argued (or cried) for a renewed valuing of and inculcation of "critical thinking" skills as a bulwark and counteroffensive to the increased primacy of screaming and bullying in our new "post-truth" marketplace of ideas. As a part of this, I suggested that we in the academy could help turn words into action - a critical thinking "stimulus package" if you like - by being more involved in our communities and finding venues where we could help to subtly - or not so subtly - create contexts for the learning of the skills of critical thought.

Local schools are natural loci for such activities. While you don't need an excuse to inquire there about possibilities for collaboration, excuses often exist in the form of the many "National Week of X" where "X" is any of a number of disciplines and interests. I haven't made a complete survey of these, but a little poking around the Internet quickly turns up, National Environmental Education Week, American Education Week, National Chemistry Week, and National Music Week. Any one of these (or others) might be observed by your own local school and if you have some expertise in the subject of honor, I'd bet that there could be a way for you to help make a mark with your local community. If and when you do that it's crucial to keep in mind that as much as you may know about whatever it is you want to share, unless you have experience in this kind of activity - or even if you do - your presence there is a part of a collaboration. Work with your school to figure out the best way to engage with the students. You may know a lot, but often in these contexts, less can accomplish more.

In particular, last week was officially "Computer Science Education Week" (CSEdWeek). Not exactly a national holiday, but at the very least a great way to market the importance of computer science and a good excuse to jumpstart for many youngsters an interest in "the computer" that might go a bit deeper than simply a desire to own one or some other digital device (i.e., a fancy phone). CSEedWeek is a part of (and perhaps helped spur) a larger national program "Computer Science for All", led by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education.

The centerpiece of the week is the hosting by many schools around the country of an "Hour of Code", a brief introduction (and beyond) to computer programming designed for kids of all ages (but of course useful for adults too!). Over 300 million people have sampled from Hour of Code's online materials!

As a form of community engagement Hour of Code can be a perfect opening for computing savvy adults to get more involved with local schools and that involvement can have many other benefits. Getting kids interested in computing - or for that matter, anything - is not just about raising interest in the material or the activity, it's also about helping them make personal connections to the subject matter, i.e., finding role models, real people already energized by the activity, who have made this part of their everyday lives. They might be professors or graduate students of computer science or mathematics. But they also might be writers who have created platforms for sharing their work, web developers or graphic artists who makes use of computational tools, or accountants or administrative assistants who program Excel spreadsheets. There is hardly a societal context in which computing doesn't occur it doesn't occur and if you are a person for whom it is an active and creative part of your life, then coming to a school and making that connection real for the students can be as important to them for sustaining interest as the spark that might be lit when a student logs in and creates her first program.

Inspiring students to learn how to code is on the one hand directly relevant to present and projected workplace and economic concerns. Part of the educational mission has always been about acquiring the skills necessary to be productive and self-supporting as an adult. But there is another part of the mission - not disconnected from the marketplace - that comes back to yes, here we go again, critical thinking. CSEdWeek also aims to introduce and raise awareness around the skills of "computational thinking". Computational thinking is a kind of critical thinking: carefully considering a problem or goal that needs to be explained to a machine - an unthinking device - organized in such a way as to admit an articulation in the formal language of a program. Deeper computational thinking can result in more creative and/or efficient implementations. Great programming requires focused concentration, clear and agile thinking, and creativity. These are not just technical skills. These are life skills and dare one say skills critical to sustaining a democracy.

Here in our own school system of Hanover, New Hampshire, a few of us from the Dartmouth College Computer Science Department made our way over to the elementary school where we gave 30 minute introductions to the second, fourth, and fifth grades. Michael Casey treated second graders to the group building of a Simon Says program using an embedded voice recognition function and some basic programming commands; fourth graders learned a little of the history of computing from Scot Drysdale and then learned from Xia Zhou how visible light is going to make new forms of digital communication possible. My colleague Amit Chakrabarti and I went low tech and introduced the fifth graders to the ideas of algorithmic thinking and algorithmic efficiency by having them act out two sorting algorithms: insertion sort and the famous "Quicksort" algorithm, one of the basic recursive algorithms. The fifth graders were given numbered cards and together we played out the execution of the algorithms to place them in order. We hope to continue working with the school in some manner.

The event was chaotic, but hopefully fun and interesting - at least it seemed so according to the few kids I spoke with afterwards. Some of them had their own ideas about to sort the cards. They asked lots of questions. That was the most gratifying part. In short, what we saw was curiosity, wonder, and the seeds of critical thinking. There is still hope yet.