We often imagine computational thinking as an esoteric skill; something for scientists and engineers, and not for the rest of us. As content director of the new PBS Kids series Work It Out Wombats!, Augustus Long Professor of Education Marina Bers disrupts this assumption, demonstrating that anyone can become a computational thinker from a young age—and receive profound personal and intellectual benefits.
Wombats! follows the exciting adventures of three wombat siblings, Malik, Zadie, and Zeke, who live in the “Treeborhood,” an enormous treehouse whose residents include a diverse variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. The show’s educational premise revolves around this trio’s creative problem solving. In each episode, the siblings are confronted with challenges that they must break down and solve together, drawing from their own unique skills and those of their community members. Dr. Bers identifies this process as the essence of computational thinking. “Computational thinking is the ability to break down complex tasks into simpler parts, and to use different high-level cognitive skills [...] to solve problems,” she said. “It involves skills and practices useful to solve problems in many academic domains, as well as our daily lives.”
In Dr. Bers’ view, teaching computational thinking to children not only prepares them to collaborate and succeed in school and the workforce, but develops their character. “Any human activity involves values. Making choices to engage in some behaviors and not others; understanding and taking on responsibilities and consequences,” said Dr. Bers. She suggests that engaging in creative projects that build from computational thinking, such as computer programming, offers an opportunity for children to acquire a “palette of virtues.” “[There] is a set of values that we put in practice through the activity of programming: curiosity, perseverance, open-mindedness, optimism [...] thus, creative programming can be a pathway to character development, for exploring the socio-emotional and ethical dimensions of learning,” she said.
At the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development, Dr. Bers is a faculty member in the Department of Formative Education. The Department promotes an unconventionally expansive view of education, inspired by a conviction of its power to transform the whole person. Through their teaching, research, and projects like Work It Out Wombats!, Dr. Bers and her colleagues demonstrate that education can address not only intellectual and practical concerns, but also enduring moral, civic, aesthetic, and spiritual questions.
Reflecting on her work for Wombats!, Dr. Bers remarked that “the most rewarding part was working closely with the amazing team at GBH. I have learned how seriously they work on making an animated series that is based on research. [...] Furthermore, the wombats are really, really, cute… so it was a lot of fun!”