PBS Show Will Teach Preschoolers How To Think Like Computers

21st Century Skills

PBS Show Will Teach Preschoolers How To Think Like Computers

By Jenny Abamu     Jul 3, 2017

PBS Show Will Teach Preschoolers How To Think Like Computers

As society anticipates a future filled with artificial intelligence, experts are theorizing ways that we humans can outperform the computers that are being programmed to perfection. Some believe educators should focus on building soft skills like empathy and interpersonal communication so humans and robots can complement one another. However, other education thought leaders are ready to beat computers at their own game by teaching people to think like intelligent machines.

The term for getting humans to think like computers has been coined Computational Thinking, and the idea is taking off. Author Heidi Williams can attest to its popularity after her book on the subject, No Fear Coding Computational Thinking Across the K-5 Curriculum, sold out at the International Society for Technology in Education conference. Inside the book, Williams breaks down computational thinking standards into four parts: 1. Formulating problems through data analysis, abstract models and algorithmic thinking; 2. Collecting, analyzing and presenting data; 3. Breaking down problems into parts and extracting information to understand the system in place; and 4. Using algorithmic thinking to develop sequences and testing automated solutions.

So what does that all mean? “It’s teaching your mind to think as a computer does,” Williams explains in an interview with EdSurge. “Computers decompose things, and they do it step by step. Why do so many of our kids struggle with math problem-solving? Because they don’t know where to start; they don’t know how to decompose the problem.”

Williams sees coding as an entry point for building Computational Thinking skills because students can understand how computers operate and then mimic the programmatic way of producing solutions. However, Marisa Wolsky, an executive producer at WGBH Boston (and one of the minds behind popular PBS children’s programs Design Squad, ZOOM, and Peep and the Big Wide World) believes television can be a way to teach Computational Thinking. She is in the first stages of creating an animated television show called Monkeying Around that uses four monkeys to teach the subject.

“At WGBH one of our strengths is taking academic content and translating it into an entertaining and engaging format,” says Wolsky. “We look for academic subjects that we want to put a spotlight on."

Wolsky hopes the show will teach computational thinking for preschoolers in a non-programming context. Her team hypothesizes that they can teach computational thinking skills through narratives and hands-on activities, so when kids do get exposed to coding, they can use those skills to help them.

“We have done shows on literacy and math. When I produced Design Squad in 2007, the awareness of what engineering was, was very low,” explains Wolsky. “We were learning more and more that computational thinking is an approach to solving problems that is fundamental to computer science, other STEM disciplines and executive functions.”

Initially, Wolsky said her team wanted to use rabbits to teach the kids, but after realizing the animal would need to use its hands, they decided to go with monkeys. The animals will teach modulation when they attend a dinner party and decide they want to bring in a gift. They get inspired by their Granny-Mama to create a flamingo sculpture, but they idea is overwhelming, so they break it down into parts. Two do the head and the legs, the others do the body. By breaking down all the parts of the sculpture, they put it together while getting very muddy in the process.

“We worked on Curious George, so we knew the potential for monkeys to have humor,” says Wolsky. “The monkeys are siblings, and they work well as a group, but also they each bring their individual ideas to the table. We are focusing making the monkeys articulate their thought processes.”

For Wolsky, this is the first curriculum she has tackled where there is not a consensus in the educational community about what preschoolers should know. Unlike other shows she has done in the past, this show will be designed in a way where students can watch long or short versions of the show. She says this allows them to easily upload the videos on other platforms such as tablets and smartphones.

“In the olden days the tv show would come first, and now when we think about a show from the very get-go we are thinking about all the platforms,” explains Wolsky.

WGBH staff members, working with researchers from Education Development Center, are in the process of creating a blueprint that identifies the educational goals and then lays out a trajectory of how children will gain these skills. They are working closely with Professor Marina Umaschi Bers who teaches computer science at Tufts and researchers from the Center for Digital Education to measure the show’s impact.

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For now, the show is only in the research and development phases. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), WGBH staff plan to create an animated pilot while simultaneously researching media parent’s engagement with children and the integration of computational thinking with math in a preschool classroom. They hope that after the development period, in which PBS will test the pilot on groups of children to see how engaging and educational the program is, they will get the green light to do a 40 episode series on PBS.

The pilot is expected to be released in the fall, and the following Spring PBS will let WGBH team members know if the program is effective. Then the final series will be completed in 2019.

“It is important to note the difference between us and commercial television,” says Wolsky. “We take the time it needs to figure out how we can impact kids and it takes money, so we are lucky to have funding to take the time to create something that will make a difference in the world.”

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