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Wolfram Alpha Founder Discusses Computational Thinking at Ed School

Stephen Wolfram—founder of Wolfram Alpha and CEO of Wolfram Research—discussed computational thinking in the 21st century with Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner at an Askwith Forum event on Monday.

Wolfram defined computational thinking as “the activity for a human of taking something that they want to know about or that they want to have happen in the world, and formulating it in such a way that a sufficiently smart computer can then know what to do.”

The process of computational thinking can be applied to any field, according to Wolfram. “Computational thinking is a bigger, more significant thing that I think will be remembered as probably the most important intellectual achievement of the 21st century,” he said.

Wolfram dispelled what he described as a misconception of equating coding with computational thinking. “Coding tends to mean the low-level construction of programs, sort of step-by-step, which is something more akin to knowing how to fix your car in detail than sort of knowing how to drive the car,” Wolfram said. “We're not so much interested in driving the car, we're more interested in going inside the engine and looking at the details of how to put together the pistons and so on.”

Coding, Wolfram argued, is “the enemy” of computational thinking. “I think with the low-level coding, it is as mechanical as a lot of the kind of math that kids find boring,” he said.

Gardner said he invited Wolfram because he wanted to learn more about Wolfram’s work and share the conversation with the public.

“I have known Stephen peripherally for a long time, but I don't really know what he does, and I figured this would be a good way to find out in more detail,” Gardner said.

This event, part of the Askwith Forum public lecture series, attracted approximately 200 Harvard affiliates and nearby residents. The next event will be held on Nov. 14 at the Graduate School of Education.

“They are also a way to open our doors to the greater Harvard community and general public,” Gardner said of the Askwith Forums.

Gardner said these forms are meant to contribute to “the intellectual life of the school through conversation, debate, and exchange of ideas.”

Alaisha K. Sharma ’20, an avid user of Wolfram Alpha, said she attended the lecture to learn about Wolfram’s thoughts on education. “I thought that was an interesting intersection,” she said, referring to the nexus of computing and education.

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