Michael E. Papka

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From Lego bricks to C++: promoting computational thinking skills in U.S. schools

TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) is a nonprofit tech-literacy teaching program that grew out of Microsoft engineer Kevin Wang’s desire to teach computer science in his spare time. Microsoft liked it, funded it, and made Wang its chief promoter. That was in 2009. For the 2013-2014 academic year, Wang just placed 250 volunteers in 65 schools in 12 states.

The TEALS program recruits, mentors, and places high tech professionals into high school classrooms to teach computer science courses. These volunteers team teach with in-service teachers, who eventually assume full responsibility for the coursework. The goal is to give schools and school districts a computer science curriculum to self manage and grow into a sustainable computer science program.

The tech industry has been clamoring for years about the dearth of programming talent in the United States. A program like TEALS, which attempts to fill a gap where there is insufficient government investment and interest in basic computer science education, is a good start. TEALS provides top tech talent to school districts unable to provide computer science curriculum, but the program’s reach would have to scale up drastically in coming years if the industry hopes to see any impact in U.S. competitiveness in this area.

If an interest in computer science is to take seed in a student, basic computational concepts must be introduced much sooner than high school. Computational thinking is integrative. Learning to program is like learning to spell — it’s a skill that makes many other areas of knowledge accessible.

It’s time to develop pedagogical models to enable all U.S. students to graduate high school with a functional understanding of computer science. I would advocate for building up problem solving skills in lower grades, mastering basic programming exercises in middle school, and full immersion in computing languages by high school. The sooner we can get parents, teachers, and administrators to see the value of providing the foundation our kids need to get excited about computer science, the sooner we’ll start effecting real change in our ability to compete.

Exploring energy themes artistically

This summer Argonne is hosting ART ENERGY FUTURE, a collaborative contemporary art exhibit curated in connection with a 2012 United Nations global awareness campaign about the importance of increasing sustainable access to energy, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. The traveling exhibit debuted last summer at the Turin Museum of Natural History and will be on display at Argonne through September 13.

ART ENERGY FUTURE, curated by Chicago gallery owner and artist Sergio Gomez, features artworks by Italian and American artists, which include Argonne computer scientist Mark Hereld. Mark, a member of the ALCF research staff, directs science teams in the analysis and visualization of their computer simulation data, and is well versed in the collaborative exchange between artistic practices and scientific investigations. As an artist, Mark works with various media and collaborators and recently designed the large-scale mural “skin” for ALCF’s new petascale supercomputer that showcases the computational science going on at the lab.

The summer art show is the first in a series of engaging exhibits that Argonne will rotate through the lobby of its main administrative building for the enjoyment of its employees and guests.

Expanding the community, accelerating mission-critical research

Summertime, specifically July 1, is when the ASCR Leadership Computing Challenge (ALCC) projects get underway at the Leadership Computing Facilities at Argonne and Oak Ridge, and at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). The supercomputing centers will support a total of 32 projects and 1.6 billion core-hours — 809 million core-hours to 13 new projects at the ALCF alone.

ALCC projects expand into new areas of science and engineering of interest to the DOE mission — the “high-risk, high-payoff” research aimed at, among other things, national emergency mitigation — and also serves to grow a critical demographic: the community of researchers capable of using leadership computing resources.

This is the first year that ALCC projects will gain access to Argonne’s Mira system, which will greatly accelerate the target research in clean energy, climate change prediction, and battery research. More information about the individual 2013 ALCC awards can be found here.