The computer scientist and former chief scientific adviser to Scotland, Prof Muffy Calder, believes informed citizens need to understand computational thinking.
Next week, Calder will visit University College Cork (UCC) to talk about one of her heroes: mathematician and philosopher George Boole, whose findings underpin the information age, not to mention the very internet that allows you to read this article.
Calder jumped at the chance to celebrate the bicentenary of Boole, who was born in England and who lived and worked for many years in Cork.
“I am deeply honoured to be asked to give this talk, and I am so pleased that Cork is celebrating the bicentenary. Boole has been such a figure,” she says. “His goal was really to systematise human thought and he invented the algebraic form of logic.”
Her talk at the George Boole 200 event will explore a topic that courses through her own research in computing: how we use logic to reason about the systems we have built.
“In computer science we try to systematise human thought through software, and I want to talk about software processes, reasoning about software and mechanising the logic that helps us to reason about that software.”
Calder’s research at the University of Glasgow, where she is vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering, and professor of formal methods, revolves around a fundamental question.
“When you have any complex system does it do what you want it to do and how do you know?” she asks. “As you are hurtling down the runway, how do you know the software controlling your engines are correct, that the software being used in the air traffic control systems is correct? How do we know that these systems work?”
Calder leans on logic to find out. “(We say) ‘Here’s a property I expect my system to have’ and then I want to prove or disprove it. It comes back to logic as a formal contract about what a system does or doesn’t do.”
She is particularly interested in the behaviour of biological systems (where new drug targets could be found), sensor-based systems (that feed into the internet of things), and how humans interact with software-based systems.
“People can do things really rather bizarrely, oftentimes in ways that haven’t been anticipated,” explains Calder. “So we instrument the system and instrument people and we make observations about what they have done. Then we can construct mathematical models and reason over that to show how people use systems in different ways, and we might want to redesign according to the weird and wonderful ways that they used it.”
Computational thinking and teaching
Until recently, Calder was chief scientific adviser for Scotland – a position she took up in March 2012 from predecessor Prof Anne Glover – and one of Calder’s missions was to increase awareness of ‘computational thinking’ in schools and beyond.
“I think the educated citizen needs to know about computing,” she says. “To be an informed citizen in modern life, I think everyone needs some of what we call computational thinking.”
Bringing such thinking into schools involves not merely changing the curriculum, but, crucially, engaging with the teachers about how computational thinking can be taught: “You can’t just change a curriculum without teachers,” Calder says, commending an initiative supported by the Scottish government called Plan C, which seeks to help teachers get to grips with the pedagogy, or approach to teaching these skills.
“It’s about new ways (for) them to teach and to share their issues and problems about why people have difficulties programming,” explains Calder. “You can’t just show someone how to program, they have got to do it and then you have got to give them the tools to articulate what it is that they have actually constructed – do they understand it, can they talk about the program that they have just constructed?”
Calder is also keen for computing science to be recognised as a science subject in Scottish schools.
“It’s science and engineering – it is both, that is the beautiful thing – but it’s science, there are fundamental laws (and) Boolean logic is part of it,” she says.
A head for logic
Calder herself has a long-standing love of computing and the thinking that goes with it.
“I always wanted to be a scientist, from the minute I can remember these things,” she says.
Having studied mathematics and physics at university, she then moved into computing, where she particularly loved programming. And one of the best parts? You can work on it wherever you happen to be.
“It’s a science but you don’t have to do it between 9am and 5pm, and you don’t have to stand out there in the cold, wet and rain and do your observations,” she says. “So much of it is in your head.”
The George Boole 200 Inaugural Lectures will be held on 5 February in the Boole Lecture Theatre 4 on the UCC main campus at 6pm and all are welcome. The event is free but pre-registration is required.
The event will also be live streamed online.
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