Introducing Computational Thinking into the Undergraduate Curriculum

NUS President Prof Tan Chorh Chuan delivered his State of the University Address on 4 Nov 2016. It was a visionary and impactful speech, titled ‘Empowering for the Age of Empowerment’. He spoke on NUS’ plans to empower students for the future, enable faculty to stand out globally and create new platforms for high impact. (You may view the event webcast or read President’s speech here.)

Amongst the many educational initiatives to prepare and empower students for the future, President had made mention that NUS is considering introducing Computational Thinking on a large scale. I would like to take this opportunity to share more about Computational Thinking.

What is Computational Thinking?

Computational Thinking has been known to humans as long as we have been thinking. One of the initial formalisations of Computational Thinking happened, perhaps, in Geometry.  Along with Euclid’s axiomatic approach to Geometry, which focused on proving properties of geometric objects like triangles and quadrilaterals, there was a robust parallel development of constructing objects using a ruler and a compass. This approach emphasised constructing objects (for example, constructing a right-angled triangle) over proofs. In fact, one fed the other, leading to increasing intellectual sophistication in the understanding of Geometry. Not only that, there was a pragmatic facet to it as well. It helped put Geometric conceptualisations into practice – in areas ranging from building construction to time-telling to Astronomy.

Another example of Computational Thinking in daily life is cooking! Humans have been cooking for a long time; in fact, civilisations take great pride in their cuisines. Any recipe which can be executed by a non-Michelin-starred cook is a fine demonstration of Computational Thinking. The ingredients of that recipe are precisely specified and the steps laid out clearly for anybody to follow. By following the recipe (think algorithm – a series of steps to the solution) fastidiously, we get delicious outcomes.

Fast-forwarding to modern times, Wikipedia explains that Computational Thinking was first used by Seymour Papert in 1980. It caught wide attention when Computer Scientist Jeanette Wing wrote an influential article about it in 2006 (https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~15110-s13/Wing06-ct.pdf).  It refers to the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solutions in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can effectively carry out. Simply put, Computational Thinking involves creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively.

Why Computational Thinking?

Computational Thinking is important because this is the thinking process of creative humans.. First, it compels us to discard inessential aspects of any problem to focus on minimum conceptual abstractions that are salient to the problem. Second, it enables us to successfully accomplish even very complex tasks by breaking them down into a set of elementary simple tasks. (In Geometry, the elementary tasks are (i) drawing a line using a ruler and (ii) drawing an arc using a compass. In cooking, there are basic skills such as chopping, stirring, straining, roasting etc.) Third, Computational Thinking helps us give an idea of the inherent complexity of any problem. Simple recipes comprise fewer steps and complex recipes require more steps in a certain order. The chef who uses Computational Thinking realises the importance of preparing the ingredients beforehand and in the right order so that the meal arrives at the table at the right temperature. No one likes a cold, bleeding steak.

As you can imagine, this way of thinking practically covers most areas of human endeavours. All of us have been unconsciously practising Computational Thinking throughout our lives. What is different today is that many of these elementary steps can be performed by computers. In fact, Computational Thinking is increasingly recognised as a fundamental 21st century skill, especially in this digital and technology-centric era. Together with reading, writing, critical thinking and problem solving, Computational Thinking is ubiquitous with vast applications across a range of fields, so much so that practically no field has been left un-touched. It is therefore time that we, as a university, start thinking about Computational Thinking formally in our curriculum.

The relevance and importance of Computational Thinking is also borne out in the job market. The World Economic Forum recently published an article on 2017’s most in-demand skills, according to LinkedIn data. It is quite evident that data and IT literacy have become a necessity, and at the next level, data proficiency and Computational Thinking are critical, relevant and sought after. This list of top ten most sought-after skills may change with time, but it is an indication of the skills in demand now.

This trend in the labour market is not surprising. Big data and technology developments are shaping the world. In Singapore, the big data sector is set for big growth and EDB expects the data analytics sector to contribute at least $1 billion to the economy every year by 2017. To stay competitive, companies will have to harness data for better decision-making.

Computational Thinking at NUS

NUS is mindful of these developments and we make effort to ensure that our educational programmes equip our graduates with the knowledge and skills to take on jobs immediately upon graduation, as well as to engage in lifelong learning, so that our graduates can adapt and learn to ride the waves and opportunities in this ever changing world.

A distinctive aspect of NUS’ curriculum is the General Education (GE) Framework. Comprising 20MCs, the General Education Framework serves as a common, core university experience for all students to be exposed to fundamental approaches to knowledge for a broad intellectual perspective and lifelong learning. Implemented in AY2015/16, the revised GE framework is designed as a five-pillar curriculum structure, and is closely aligned with the University’s educational philosophy which seeks to ‘help students become individuals with questioning minds, willing and able to examine what is taken for granted, and who engage in rigorous inquiry within and beyond assumed disciplinary borders’. The five pillars are:

  • Singapore Studies
  • Human Cultures
  • Thinking and Expression
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Asking Questions

Under the Quantitative Reasoning (QR) pillar, all NUS students read GER1000, a module introducing foundational data competency, taught using a blended format. Lectures are pre-recorded and are available online for students to view, pause and play at their own pace; learning is facilitated and reinforced with face-to-face tutorials. The module introduces students to the role of data in addressing real-world issues, and how to collect and employ data to conduct projections and scenario planning. Students will acquire basic reasoning skills, and learn to quantify and characterise relationships between data.

Given the growing importance of quantitative skills, we plan to take one step further to introduce Computational Thinking as a requirement for selected undergraduate majors and degree programmes. Computational Thinking is a set of cognitive skills and techniques that can be used to support problem solving across situations and disciplines. More specifically, as Google’s website summarises, Computational Thinking entails

  1. Decomposition – breaking a (big, complicated, complex) problem into parts or steps;
  2. Pattern Recognition – finding and identify patterns and trends in data;
  3. Abstraction – identifying the general principles that generate these patterns;
  4. Algorithm Design – developing instructions for solving the problem.

Step by step, part by part, the solutions to the small problems can be brought together, and help shed light on and provide a solution to the big, complex problem.

Computational Thinking is useful as a problem-solving methodology, but beyond that, training in Computational Thinking can also help cultivate positive learning attitudes and values, such as tinkering and experimenting with solutions, debugging through finding and fixing errors, perseverance in working with difficult and open-ended problems, and confidence in dealing with ambiguity and complexity.

I hope NUS students will be keen to acquire and deepen their QR and Computational Thinking skills, and that you are curious and excited about the many future job opportunities in these fields. With a good foundation in QR and the added training in Computational Thinking for some of you, NUS students will gain confidence and are empowered to pick up computer coding, even if you are not a Computer Science major.

Grade-free scheme for freshmen: Greater flexibility in shaping your transformative learning journey

In AY2014/15, NUS introduced a new grading system for modular degree programmes in the form of a revised S/U policy, where students may exercise the S/U option (i.e. students can decide whether to include or exclude the grades obtained for those modules in the computation of the Cumulative Average Point) for up to 20 modular credits (MCs) during the first semester of their candidature. In addition, students may exercise the S/U option for up to another 12 MCs at any time during the candidature.

The objectives of this grading system are to encourage a change in the way students think about grades and learning at university, and to help students make a smooth transition to the academic and social culture of university life. In so doing, a student’s anxiety about his or her academic performance should be alleviated during the first semester.

I had previously conveyed that we will be monitoring and evaluating how students and faculty members take to this new grading system.

Two cohorts of freshmen have since experienced the new grading system in their first semester and it is time to take stock. The usage patterns of the S/U options were similar for the first-year students of AY2014/15 and AY2015/16. Majority of students (about 80%) had exercised their S/U options for 3 or fewer modules; about 5% of students had exercised their S/U options fully.

We studied the student feedback carefully and an analysis of the qualitative comments received found that students took well to the new grading system. The new grading system also helped to reduce stress levels, and had encouraged them to take academic risks.

We have also noticed that students have become more adventurous in their choice of modules, and have ventured beyond their academic comfort zones. Nearly one-third of the modules read by first-year students in AY2015/16 were non-core modules (defined as modules not read as essential, programme essential, elective, programme elective or compulsory cross-faculty module). This is a significant increase compared to the modules read by the first-year students in AY2013/14. I see this as a positive development, that students are increasingly making good use of the opportunities of being in a comprehensive university, to broaden their perspectives and horizons by reading modules beyond their degree discipline.

To better analyse the effect of the grading system on student academic performance in the first semester, faculty members were asked not to vary their teaching and grading methods. It was found that there were no significant changes in the overall grade distributions before and after the revised S/U policy was introduced. This suggests that student academic performance was not compromised, even though they now have access to the S/U options for their first semester. NUS students were not complacent and continued to be academically engaged. With the S/U option, there remains a strong incentive to strive for good grades, while eliminating the anxiety and stress of poor grades. Having worked with two cohorts of freshmen, faculty members are convinced that NUS students are intrinsically motivated and in general, possess good learning habits.

To enable students to benefit from the S/U option more fully across the first year, NUS will be making further adjustments to the grading policy for first-year students. From AY2016/17, first-year students may exercise the S/U option for up to 32 MCs in their first year. If this is not fully utilised, the S/U option may then be saved for modules taken in subsequent semesters, for up to 12 MCs.

In essence, the total number of MCs available for S/U throughout one’s undergraduate candidature will remain unchanged, at 32 MCs. But students will now have the flexibility to exercise the S/U option for most modules in their first year, hence extending the opportunities for academic exploration across the first year, beyond the first semester.

The first-year grading policy must be seen in the context of a suite of educational initiatives that NUS has introduced progressively in recent years, to create a truly transformative educational experience that prepares students to take on the challenges of life and work in the 21st century. The new General Education curriculum, the Centre for Future-ready Graduates’ life skills programmes, expanding opportunities for students to participate in the NUS Overseas Colleges Programme as well as integrated living and learning at our Residential Colleges, are but some of the educational enhancements that enable students to maximise their learning experiences at NUS.

Students admitted into NUS are academically strong. We hope that this new first-year grading policy that will take effect in AY2016/17 will create even more time, space and opportunities to pursue adventurous and deep learning, and to move away from the over-emphasis on grades.

On a related note, MOE has recently announced that from 2021, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands. Under the new scoring system, PSLE grading will no longer be based on how students fare relative to their peers. This move will hopefully encourage students to go beyond being exam smart, and to focus on one’s own learning, rather than competing to do better than others. Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Mr Ng Chee Meng explained that the current PSLE scoring system is too precise, and differentiates students more finely than necessary.

I welcome this move. MOE recognises that education is not about training book smarts – the emphasis should be on learning. There is no need to grade, sort and differentiate students at every possible juncture.

In the same spirit, the freshman year is an opportune time to immerse oneself in the social and academic culture of university life, to uncover, discover and pursue one’s intellectual curiosities and passions, setting you on course for lifelong learning. At NUS, we have created a first-year grading policy that allows for this self-development journey.

Please let me have your thoughts.

To All New University Students, Carpe Diem

In many Western societies, families regard going to university as a momentous coming-of-age event. It is often the first time sons and daughters will bid farewell to the comforts of home to spend an extended time away from their families, in a completely new and exciting environment, many miles away.

In Singapore, though many students continue to live at home with their families, the entrance into university also marks the beginning of a new adventure. I want to congratulate all freshmen and women who are matriculating into our local universities. They have worked hard to earn a place and there is much to look forward to. Singapore universities offer a world-class education and a transformative experience.

At NUS, students begin their academic journey with a grade-free first semester. NUS is a large and comprehensive university, comprising 16 Faculties and Schools which offer over 50 Bachelor disciplinary degrees. The grade-free semester presents a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in intellectual exploration. Beyond one’s chosen discipline, students can read and discover other subject areas of interest, acquaint themselves with perspectives and frameworks that other disciplines employ, and pursue intellectual inquiry in a broad range of subjects. This pursuit is encouraged in the nurturing yet rigorous scaffolds of a grade-free semester, where the university maintains high standards in grading, but students who score at least a C grade may choose to include or exclude their grade in their final grade. This policy allows for a gentler transition from pre-university to NUS and it encourages all new students to take a fresh approach and to pursue their curiosity and interests without fear of adversely affecting their grades.

Some freshmen and women may find the academic culture of university life very different from their earlier school years. The demands of university are different; one is expected to engage with a much greater degree of depth, independent thinking and learning. Professors will probe and question as part of the teaching and learning process; please do not feel intimidated or personally aggrieved. Students are expected to speak out and lay down their thoughts and ideas. We do not have ten-year series. It is also fairly difficult to get private tutors to help you. Instead, students will find themselves learning through active interaction with professors and peers, inside and outside class. The grade-free semester will help freshmen and women in transitioning to this new academic culture.

For many Singaporeans, university life is also the first time one is immersed in an international setting. Every year, NUS welcomes nearly 2,000 exchange students from abroad who spend a semester living and studying alongside NUS students. These interactions with international friends from different cultures, school systems and backgrounds, whether as hall mates, project mates or classmates, broaden everyone’s perspectives and outlook. This exposure gives us an appreciation of a global working environment and develops our cross-cultural competence.

There are many advantages of being part of a large campus community. There is much life, learning and enrichment beyond the classrooms. University life is about self-directed learning, where one is not compelled, but chooses how and what we want to be part of. I urge students to partake in the rich offerings of campus life, both in the varied academic curricular options and the wide range of co-curricular activities (CCA). At NUS, for instance, there are many performing arts groups, a wide range of competitive and recreational varsity sports groups, interest groups, and over 100 clubs and student societies. There are also many student-led activities at Residential Colleges and Halls of Residence. Students will thus have many avenues to try out new interests and activities. For students who have a specific interest, connect with others on campus who share the same passion. There are also avenues for students to lead and champion a cause, perhaps within the Residential College, Hall or Faculty, or even, to seed a business idea and/or establish a start-up. CCA experiences are often fun, rewarding and the memories and friendships forged will carry on for a lifetime.

In short, a university education is what we make it out to be. Alumni of NUS who visit our campus are often awed by the facilities and wide range of opportunities that undergraduates have today, from flexible degree pathways, to cross-disciplinary studies, entrepreneurial opportunities, overseas exchange, research and residential living and learning programmes – the possibilities are innumerable. Thus, to all freshmen and women, Carpe Diem! I wish them the very best as they embark on this exciting journey.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew – A Life of Dignity and Distinction

I have read the many moving tributes and eulogies of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He has clearly left a deep impact on many, within and beyond Singapore.

Like many Singaporeans, I am not personally acquainted with Mr Lee. Yet, I have much to thank Mr Lee for.

I was not born of patronage. My father was a mini-bus driver, and had to support a family of 9 including my grandmother. My mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education, and she later too, because a mini-bus driver to supplement the family income. That my 5 siblings and I could under these circumstances, receive an education, find jobs, build homes in Singapore and raise our children; I count it remarkable.

Mr Lee built a meritocratic Singapore.

Of course, the outcomes may not be equal. Even between siblings, we pursued different paths and progressions in life. Nevertheless, Singapore prospered and all of us have seen our lives transform for the better. Each of us is contributing to society in different areas and capacities. We have a system which enables each of us to be nurtured, developed and to achieve, regardless of our race, religion or socioeconomic background. Today, NUS continues to count many first-generation graduates amongst its students.

Perhaps the pace of change in our lives is so quick that we sometimes fail to consider the enormity of the challenges Singapore faced and how far and how fast we have come. Those of us born in the 1970s or before will remember that even the basic commodity of water was so precious and difficult to secure. (I have lived in a kampong where we had the bucket-system for sanitation, and we bathed by scooping water out of a big urn. Perhaps that was part of the reason why Mr Lee’s house did not have a shower until 2003 after Mrs Lee suffered a stroke.) I recall every time there were news reports on discussions with Malaysia on water treaties, there was much tension and anxiety, and we feared and dreaded the worst.

This article by Mr Heng Swee Keat gives a good account of Mr Lee’s immense dedication to Singapore, and of his work ethics. It is admirable and inspiring, and I hope all NUS students will take time to read it.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew is a great Singaporean. He loved Singapore with all his heart and might and life. Thank you, Mr Lee.

SU1101: The Science (and Art) of the S/U Option

Season’s Greetings!

 

As the year draws to a close, many people (myself included) are beginning to wind down and recharge, before gearing up for the new year. It also marks the end of the grade-free first semester which the University implemented for the new freshman cohort in August.

 

With the release of exam results, it will also be the very first time the freshmen are exercising the Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory (S/U) option on your modules. These are decisions you have to deliberate carefully within the three-day window after your results are released. Revocation or retrospective declaration is not allowed.

 

Some of you may turn to your seniors for guidance, seek advice at online forums, or try out different combinations with the CAP calculator. Let me also share my views about making sound S/U decisions.

 

(Disclaimer: this is NOT the Provost’s secret to attaining a perfect CAP, just a mathematics professor sharing the mechanisms of S/U 🙂 )

 

First of all, know the rules!

 

Modules taken in the first semester are eligible for the S/U option, with some exceptions. Do double check the eligibility of your modules before participating in the declaration exercise.

 

Each freshman may exercise up to 20 MCs worth of S/U options within the first semester only. Unless otherwise approved, unused S/U options may not be carried forward to the next semester.

 

Next, do the math!

 

Remember that a Satisfactory (S) grade is the equivalent of a C grade and above, while an Unsatisfactory (U) grade is the equivalent of a D+ grade and below.

 

You have been told that S and U grades are not computed into the CAP. Let me explain how this works with the formula used to derive the CAP:

 

 

Suppose a student obtains 4 Bs and 1 C for 5 modules read this semester, and each module carries 4 modular credits (MCs).

 

 

Assuming he keeps his grades, his CAP will be

(4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 2.0) = 3.20

4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4

 

If he chooses to exercise S/U on the C graded module, his CAP will be

(4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 3.5) + (4 x 2.0) = 3.50

4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4

 

Every time S/U is exercised, the module is removed from both the numerator and the denominator in the formula. Ideally, you should aim to exercise the S/U options in a way that would improve your CAP. (For instance, in the above example I wouldn’t S/U a B!)

 

Note that with each S/U option exercised, your remaining modules will influence the CAP more significantly. For instance, if a student pursuing a four-year programme converts four modules (out of 40 modules) as Satisfactory, the CAP will be calculated based on 36 modules.

 

This can work for or against you depending on your academic performance in subsequent semesters, so think carefully about how many S/U options you wish to exercise.

 

Now, which grades should you keep?

 

If you obtained A or A+, well done and keep the grade!

 

If you obtained B+ or A-, I would generally encourage you to keep the grade as well. For those who may be thinking of exercising S/U on a B+ to qualify for the Dean’s List, do note that there will NOT be Dean’s Lists for the first two semesters.

 

If you obtained Bs and Cs, it is a little tricky. In theory, you should exercise S/U on your worst grades. However, the challenge is to do so without foresight of the grades that you will get for subsequent semesters. You should base your decisions on your academic goals and your self-assessment of your expected academic performance for the rest of your candidature. If you do not have a goal right now, your first semester CAP (before any S/U options are exercised) may be a good guide.

 

In general, it would be helpful to S/U modules whose grade points fall below your desired CAP. Let me illustrate with two examples.

 

Student X from the School of Design and Environment obtained the following exam results for the first semester:

 

AR1101 B

AR1121 B-

GEK1016 C+

LAF1201 B+

PF2102 C+

 

Without S/U, Student X’s CAP will be 3.10 – this is an important number to keep in mind. Presumably, Student X is still adapting to the university academic environment. Now order the grades in descending order: B+, B, B-, C+, C+. Obviously, one would consider applying S/U from the modules with C+. If Student X applies S/U to the two modules with C+ grades, then his/her CAP becomes 3.50. Suppose he/she thinks that he/she could maintain a CAP of 3.50 and above, then that’s it. However, if he/she is more optimistic on his/her future performance, it may make sense to keep the grades for LAF1201 and AR1101, and exercise S/U on the rest, thereby giving him/her a CAP of 3.75. A word of caution here: if his/her eventual CAP (i.e., after 4 years) is less than 3.00, then he/she may regret applying S/U to the module AR1121 with the B- grade. Generally, it would be wise to consider applying S/U to the modules with grade points below 3.10, i.e., you S/U the modules with B- and C+ grades to give a CAP of 3.75. It is also possible, if one is confident of an average of 3.50 in future, to S/U the modules with the C+ grades, leading to a CAP of 3.50.

 

Now, consider Student Y from the Faculty of Science, with the following exam results:

 

CM1101 C+  

EN1101E B

FST1101 B+

GEK1505 B+    

LSM1101 A-

 

Without S/U, Student Y’s CAP would be a commendable 3.70. It is useful to order the grades as follows: A-, B+, B+, B, C+. Suppose Student Y is confident of maintaining a CAP of above 4.00, he/she can get closer to his/her goal in two ways: solely retain the grade for LSM1101 but exercise S/U on the rest (which gives a CAP of 4.50, but I would think is too risky!), or keep the grades for his/her three best modules, LSM1101, FST1101 and GEK1505 (giving him/her a CAP of 4.17). Generally, if he/she assumes that the first semester is a good reflection of future grades, then he/she should just S/U the modules with grade point less than 3.70, i.e., the modules CM1101 and EN1101E.

 

Remember that what matters is not the impact of S/U on your first semester CAP, but its impact on your expected CAP for the remaining semesters.

 

If you obtained D or D+, it is generally advantageous to convert it to a U in the first semester. Your CAP should improve (unless you get all Fs in subsequent semesters!), and you will have the opportunity to retake the module (or take another module) for a better grade. However, do note that this comes at the cost of a heavier workload in one of your remaining semesters, as you have to make up for the missing MCs. It could also lead to additional financial costs, if you choose to read a module in Special Term. Such a move may not be too wise if you are approaching your final semester.

 

If you obtained an F grade, please exercise the S/U and try again next semester.

 

Last word of advice: remember the C in CAP…

 

The S/U option offers a second chance to those who may take a while to adjust to university life, be it in the academic setting or the overall campus experience. However, it is not a quick fix for a lack of effort or complacency. CAP is still a cumulative measurement, and ultimately, it is consistent hard work that will determine your overall academic performance.

 

While this will hopefully serve as a guide to optimise your CAP (after you have sat for the exams), I am not advocating that you prioritise CAP optimisation over all other goals. There are many other things you can get out of university life. Even after the first semester, I hope you can continue to read modules of intellectual interest (remember that you still have 12 MCs of S/U options!), try out different study-life combinations by taking part in different co-curricular activities, or simply spend time to bond with your friends.

 

For now, know the rules, do the math, and use your S/U options wisely. All the best.