Computational Thinking – on Mars and in school.

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Computational Thinking – on Mars and in school.

The 2016-2017 academic year is going to be exciting, with our Mission to Mars initiative being one we are really looking forward to.


A scene from The Martian

In preparation for this I’ve watched the Ridley Scott film, The Martian, looking for some inspiration. I’ve been really looking forward to watching it and it didn’t disappoint, it’s up there with The Lion King, Captain America and The Dark Knight Rises!

I’ll try not to give too much away, but as I watched it, I thought that they should have renamed the film, The Computational Thinking Martian. To cut a long and brilliant story short, Matt Damon’s character, astronaut Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars believed to be dead. In order to stay alive he displays some excellent computational thinking skills, problem solving and logical thinking.

He realised that he needed additional food to survive. Mark documented all the food on the base on Mars and rationed it. He realised he didn’t have enough to survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. He found potatoes, planted them in a combination of Mars soil and human waste and made water to keep hydrated by condensing oxygen and mixing with hydrogen.

Another fine example of computational thinking and problem solving was when he identified the issue of not being able to communicate with Earth. He knew where the Mars Pathfinder craft that landed on Mars back in 1997 was, equipped his own Mars Rover with enough solar panels to make the journey to the Pathfinder, turned it on and was able to communicate with NASA.

There are many other examples but I wouldn’t want to give too much away if you’re planning to see the film. But it got me thinking, computational thinking is a very important skill that can help people overcome problems. Pupils come across a range of problems in school, not least in Mathematics. We as teachers help them to develop skills to identify problems, break them down into manageable, smaller pieces and perhaps employ solutions from previous problems to come up with an overarching solution for the specific problem.

I’m not for one minute saying that this will mean that they will be able to solve the bigger problems in life as they get older, or if they ever do end up on Mars that they will be able to survive for a year and a half and get their way back to Earth. However, if we can find the time in the hectic timetable in school to give pupils time to develop their computational thinking skills, then they may be able to begin to look at other problems objectively – take a step back and look at it, break it down and maybe work with others to come up with a solution.

The presence of computational thinking is becoming more prevalent in the curriculum and we have very much designed iCode around this very important skill. If you take a good look – – you’ll see how pupils will have to identify problems in code using the Lego Fix the Factory app. Or, in using the Lightning Lab app, pupils may have to program the SPRK+ to move around obstacles.

You can develop computational thinking through coding activities with the SPRK+.

You can develop computational thinking through coding activities with the SPRK+.

Matt Damon’s character states importantly at the end of the film, ‘You do the math, you solve one problem, you solve the next one.’ Computational thinking is key to this.

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