Computational thinking

Computational thinking is a way of chopping big problems into bite-sized pieces.

If computational thinking sounds complex, don’t be scared. You’re almost certainly using these skills every day already!

“If you’re asked to cook a meal for 1000 people and you’ve never cooked before, how do you break down that problem? You just don’t do it, or you start thinking, ‘OK, a meal, that’s maybe three courses: starter, main course, dessert’.” Jonathan Graham of Mined Minds is explaining how he teaches adults retraining in computer science to learn computational thinking.

That’s “problem decomposition” because you’re breaking down the larger problem of a meal into three smaller problems: the three courses.

Then you think about friends who can help out. That’s “abstraction” because you know that Alexis likes to bake and Perry usually makes salads for potlucks, and you’ve applied that pattern to help solve your problem.

The next step is “data collection”. Alexis can look up cake recipes. Then maybe one of her friends will make a whole bunch of crusts from crushed cookies, while Alexis whips up a big batch of cheesecake filling.

You make the process efficient by using “parallelization”, that is, having multiple people work on different processes at the same time. And, just like that, you’ve done some computational thinking!

Why’s computational thinking important?

That process – of removing complexity to get to the bottom of a problem – is super important in every career, not just coding. Let’s face it, computers are part of everyday life. So one of the most useful skills around is knowing the best problems to tackle with a computer and how to shape those problems the right way so a computer can understand them. Makes sense, right?!

“Computational thinking is a way humans solve problems; it’s not trying to get humans to think like computers,” says Jeannette Wing, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research. “Computers are dull; humans are clever and imaginative.”

Think it out

Try these computational thinking exercises

  • The rate of car accidents on the street corner near you is high. How could you solve this, save lives and prove it works?

    At the grocery store, there are three lines. How do you decide which line to choose? Could you make lines move faster? How?

    You need to stop at the drugstore, return a book and pick up your lil sis. How do get it all done? (Hint)

Using computational thinking

Take Netflix. Its business is getting you to watch a bunch of TV, so it recommends movies and shows that you might like, using data about your previous viewing history. But if you only ever watch romantic comedies, then based on that data, you’d only ever get suggestions for films exactly the same.

Netflix held a million-dollar competition to find clever ways to solve this problem. Its algorithm (or the set of rules it uses to figure this out) is always evolving, but currently one answer is to occasionally suggest something out of your comfort zone – say, a drama or documentary – and then see which ones you watch. It’s an imaginative solution to a tricky problem and one part of computational thinking (algorithms).

The people who can harness computational thinking will be the ones who drive and shape the new economy. “In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill – it’s a basic skill, right along with ‘the three Rs’,” said then President Obama in a weekly address. “This means not just being able to work with computers, but developing the analytical and coding skills to power our innovation economy.” You can find out more about learning to code here.

Whether your career is in music, medicine, engineering, the arts or data mining, you can apply useful knowledge in new, creative solutions using computer science. Find your passion, figure out how to use the tools of computer science with your passion and you’ll always find work.


You use elements of computational thinking every day. No kidding!

  • >> Before school you take a look at your  history homework: How did the Civil War start? Thanks Google! (data collection and analysis)
  • >> In math, you learn to solve problems like long division. (algorithms)
  • >> You need to get across school to the bus stop, avoiding the gym because basketball tryouts are on. (problem decomposition and simulation)
  • >> You and your dad are doing the laundry. Once his clothes are washed, yours go in while his dry. (parallel processing)

Find out more about computational thinking @ Google.

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