Engineering’s New Open Online Course Teaches Computational Thinking

Engineering’s New Open Online Course Teaches Computational Thinking

In a world increasingly dependent on data-driven decision making, understanding the way computers process information has become an asset in almost every field and career.

Penn Engineering’s newest open online course — Computational Thinking for Problem Solving — is built around the idea that this skill shouldn’t only be the domain of computer scientists and programmers.

“Computational thinking” is an approach to solving problems using concepts and ideas from computer science, and expressing those solutions in ways that can be run by a computer. Hosted on Coursera, the four-week online course provides an accessible introduction to this approach for students who don’t have a background in computer science.

Computational thinking means breaking down problems into smaller parts, looking for patterns in those sub-problems, figuring out what information is needed and developing a step-by-step solution,” says Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS), and one of the course’s two instructors.

By the end of the course, students will be able to develop an algorithm and express it to the computer by writing a simple Python program.

“Computational thinking is used everywhere by many different types of people; it isn’t just computer scientists and engineers,” says Chris Murphy, Associate Professor of Practice in CIS and the course’s co-instructor. “Professionals in business, medicine, education, life science and social science all use computational thinking to solve problems. You don’t have to be a computer scientist to think like a computer scientist.”

The course also features two case studies that demonstrate how a computational thinking approach can be applied to areas that are far removed from the traditional domains of computer science.

In one, Erin Cross, director of Penn’s LGBT Center, discusses how her team uses computational thinking to manage their room reservation schedule so they can efficiently serve the dozens of student groups the Center supports.

In the other, Cindy Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, shows how computational thinking helps determine which dogs are the best fit for the several different types of training programs the Center runs.

These case studies underline Penn Engineering’s approach to teaching computer science online. Rather than a series of recorded lectures, the course consists of shorter modules interspersed with knowledge checks and assignments that connect computational concepts to the broader problems they can be applied to.

“It’s about using computing to make a positive change in our world,” says Davidson.

Computational Thinking for Problem Solving also serves as an introduction to the subject matter and teaching style found in Penn Engineering’s Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT) program. An online-only version of that program, also hosted on Coursera and co-directed by Murphy, launched earlier this year.

“This course is a great way for interested students to see if they have the aptitude and passion for this field before applying to our Master of Computer and Information Technology program,” says Murphy.

Students can begin taking Computational Thinking for Problem solving now. The admissions deadline for the first cohort of the MCIT Online program is November 8, with classes beginning in January 2019.