Jeannette Wing: The Computational Thinker

Computational thinking helps people find efficient solutions to everyday problems

6 April 2009

Computational thinking should be for everyone. That’s the vision IEEE Fellow Jeannette Wing plans to impart during a 29 July presentation at Yahoo Research, in Santa Clara, Calif., as one of Yahoo’s 2009 Big Thinkers.

The yearlong lecture series features science and technology experts discussing research themes, challenges, and opportunities.

“Computational thinking is a way of solving problems and understanding human behavior using concepts fundamental to computer science,” she explains. “It helps people find efficient solutions to everyday problems, such as the fastest route home from work during rush hour.”

Wing is the U.S. National Science Foundation’s assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. The CISE directorate supports research in cutting-edge fields and doles out some US $535 million in grants to academics. Wing is on leave from Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, where she headed the computer science department and directed the university’s Center for Computational Thinking and Specification and Verification Center.

Her Big Thinker session covers computational thinking as a basic education skill that should be taught alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic.

NEW APPLICATIONS “Computational thinking involves reformulating a seemingly difficult problem into one we know how to solve,” she says. “It’s transforming how scientists and engineers solve problems, and it’s moving into law, humanities, medicine, and art.”

Computational techniques that find patterns in massive datasets—like digital libraries, functional MRI scans of the human brain, and astronomical maps—are already used for detecting credit-card fraud, spam filtering, online advertisement placement, and recommendation and reputation services that ensure e-commerce consumer confidence and product quality, and refer consumers to similar products. A daily task, such as making sure the dinner vegetables don’t get cold while the meat is in the oven, is an instance of more general computational methods used to synchronize multiple parallel tasks that share resources—a common problem in computing.

Growing up, Wing loved math and intended to follow in the footsteps of her father, an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University and later dean of engineering at Chinese University in Hong Kong. “He explained to me that engineering was applying math and science to the problems of the real world,” she says. “I always liked that idea. I also knew that, compared with pure math or science, engineers get jobs.” So she decided to study electrical engineering.

RIVETING What she hadn’t counted on was how strongly computer science would grab her attention as a sophomore at MIT. This was in the late 1970s— well before the computer’s ubiquity.

“There weren’t even textbooks available on some of the things we were being taught,” she says. “One topic I really fell in love with was lambda calculus, because I saw the essence of how a finite, static object (a string of symbols) could represent a potentially infinite, dynamic entity (a computation).”

After switching majors to computer science, Wing never looked back. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in 1979, and a Ph.D. in 1983, all in computer science from MIT. From there, she worked as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for two years before moving to Carnegie Mellon in 1985. She became a full professor in 1996, overseeing the computer science department from 2004 to 2007 before accepting the two-year NSF term.

Wing is best known for her work in formal methods used to specify and verify software systems.

“A crude analogy is: An architect draws a blueprint for the design of a house, then a builder constructs it,” she says of formal methods. “I, as the specifier, am to the architect what the programmer is to the builder.” The processes of specification and verification are akin to designing the house and checking that it has been built according to the blueprint, she explains.

In the last decade, she has shifted her focus in that arena from system reliability to security and privacy. “In the past, the culprits were individuals hacking into systems for fun and the thrill of it,” she says. “In the future, they will be more sinister, organized, and targeted in their attacks.”

FOR THE MAINSTREAM Overall, she envisions a positive future, getting computational thinking into the mainstream. Automating powerful abstractions in computing enables scientists to ask new kinds of questions, while enhancing mathematical and scientific reasoning skills in people would allow them to better understand public debates involving science.

“How do you introduce those concepts in preuniversity education, especially in the early grades?” she wonders. “Key concepts were introduced in physics education during the Sputnik era. I’m challenging the community to think about this question for computing.”

An IEEE member since her undergraduate days, Wing was elevated to Fellow in 2003. She has served on many IEEE boards and committees, including the editorial boards of Proceedings of the IEEE and IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, which she has been involved with since 2006.

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