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Real (ish) Life Computational Thinking

I went to see the most delightful talk this week, given by a graduate student. Like many academic talks, the speaker outlined a problem, described similar research and attempts at solutions, which have all failed, then argued for a new solution that he has done research on. The format, obviously, is not what was delightful, instead it was two other features of the talk.

First, the problem: "The dirty dish dilemma." Our young grad student has lived for many years in communal houses. The policy is "clean your own dishes." But sometimes dishes get left in the sink! Like the broken windows theory of crime, soon it snowballs into a sink full of dirty dishes and a lot of unhappy housemates.

When was the last time you went to a talk about something you actually found entertaining? This is so much better than the problem of writing across the curriculum or differentiated instruction! (And truly, I think life at most schools would be more improved by 30 minutes on solving the dirty dishes in the staff room sink than by 30 minutes on curricular reform.)

The second delightful part was his research method. It would be hard to go out to lots of communal houses, try different solutions, see which ones worked and then test the "working" solutions at other houses to make sure they really work. But it is easy to download NetLogo and create a model of dirty dishes, including the people who wash and dirty the dishes. And it's very easy to modify the model once you create it - varying how slobbish the people are, trying different solutions, adding or removing constraints (like when Mom gets fed up and yells and all the dishes get washed at once). It was the most realistic example of the use of computational thinking I've seen, and at no time in the talk did the speaker use the phrase computational thinking, nor did he even appear to know that's what he was doing.

Incidentally, the solution is to change the policy to one of small altruism. Instead of "do your own dishes" the policy should be "do your own dishes plus one other dish". Then no one gets stuck having to clean up after everyone else just because their prep period is right after lunch.

Michelle Hutton
CSTA President

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