The word algorithm may no
t seem relevant to kids, but the truth is that algorithms are all around them, governing everything from the technology they use to the mundane decisions they make every day. Algorithms are fascinating and, although some are quite complex, the concept itself is actually quite simple.
What Is an Algorithm?
An algorithm is a detailed step-by-step instruction set or formula for solving a problem or completing a task. In computing, programmers write algorithms that instruct the computer how to perform a task.
When you think of an algorithm in the most general way (not just in regards to computing), algorithms are everywhere. A recipe for making food is an algorithm, the method you use to solve addition or long division problems is an algorithm, and the process of folding a shirt or a pair of pants is an algorithm. Even your morning routine could be considered an algorithm! In fact, heres what your childs morning might look like written out as an algorithm:
Kids Can Write Their Own Algorithms!
Encourage your child to write out their morning algorithm, or the algorithm for an even simpler task, like brushing their teeth or eating cereal. Without knowing it, theyll be exploring important computational concepts like repetition (brush bottom left teeth five times), sequencing (put cereal in bowl and then put in milk), and conditional logic (if the bowl is empty, stop eating).
Challenge your child to be as specific with the instructions as possible. Computers dont understand your intentions, so if you dont specify that you need to get out the bowl first, youll end up pouring milk on the floor!
In Math class, kids learn about prime numbers and how to determine if a number is prime. But with large numbers, this is very difficult! For the number 493, youd have to try over 15 calculations tolearn that 493 is not prime (17 * 29 = 493).
The Benefits of Algorithmic Thinking
Algorithmic thinking, or the ability to define clear steps to solve a problem, is crucial in subjects like Math and Science. Kids use algorithms without realizing it all the time, especially in Math. To solve a long division problem, kids apply an algorithm that theyve learned in order to iterate through the digits of the number they’re dividing. For each digit of the dividend (the number being divided), the child must divide, multiply, and subtract. Algorithmic thinking allows kids to break down problems and conceptualize solutions in terms of discrete steps in a procedure.
Kids can strengthen their algorithmic thinking skills by completing coding activities. To complete puzzles, kids design simple algorithms based on sequencing, repetition, and conditional logic to solve fun problems. Just like all skills, kids can improve their algorithmic thinking through daily practice and by completing creative projects to apply their skills.
Understanding the Basic Algorithms that Power Your Digital Life
Algorithms provide a series of instructions that the computer follows to arrive at an answer and they underlie all of our technology. The problem that the algorithm is solving might be sorting a list, compressing a file, or determining which Internet pages are most relevant to you when you search for something. Algorithms determine how traffic signals are scheduled, how postal servicescan most efficiently deliver your mail, and much more.
In the digital age, kids should do more than just use technology. They need to explore the algorithms that power their phones, their social media sites, and their worlds so they can become fluent in coding, the language of technology, and take an active role in the creation of technology.
Search and Recommendation Algorithms
When you type a search into Google, it uses a very sophisticated algorithm that determines which pages on the internet are relevant to your search and ranks them based on how relevant and reputable they are. At its core, the PageRank algorithm takes into account how many other sites link to a given web page as well as the rank of the linking sites in order to determine the rank of that page. And it returns your results in less than a second!
The algorithm that recommends connections on social media (like the People You May Know recommendations on Facebook or Linkedin) works by calculating your degrees of separation from other users.If you are friends with Amy and Amy is friends with Ben, Facebook assumes that you might know Ben as well and recommends him as a potential connection. But if Amy is friends with Ben and Ben is friends with Charlene and Charlene is friends with Daryl and Daryl is friends with Erin, Facebook is unlikely to recommend Erin as a connection. In fact, scientists have theorized that, because of how globally connected we all are, there are only six degrees of separation between any two people on earth!
And when you use Amazon or Netflix, they recommend purchases or other shows you might be interested in based on a collaborative filtering algorithm that tries to predict what users will like based on the choices of other users with similar taste profiles.
You may not think about it when you are sorting things in real life, but you are following an algorithm! Computers need to sort lists with millions of values extremely quickly, so sorting algorithms are very important.
Can you describe how you might sort ten books into alphabetical order? If you had to tell someone who didnt understand the process of sorting how to sort the books, what steps would you write out?
You might start with one book, then add one book at a time, placing it in the proper place in your lineup. But imagine how many hours or years this would take if you had to do this with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of books! This algorithm is called Insertion Sort, and it works fine for small lists, but takes a lot of time for longer lists.
Another way you could sort the ten books would be to arrange them in a random order, then go down the list comparing books that are next to each other. First you would compare the first and second books. If they are in the wrong order, you swap them. Then you compare the second and third books, and again decide whether to swap them. Whenever you reach the end of the list, you go back through the list again, each time only comparing books that are immediately next to each other. This is called the Bubble Sort Algorithm, and it is again reasonable for small lists, but very inefficient for longer lists.
Algorithms in Your Life
Efficient algorithms for searching and sorting are crucial for building software that runs quickly. These and other basic algorithms underlie most of your technology, from the YouTube videoyou stream to your phone, to the face detection on your camera.
How does YouTube stream to your phone so fast and seamlessly? How does your camera search for faces, all of which look very different depending on the person, the lighting, and the distance?
It might seem like your computer is making the kind of intelligent decisions that we normally think of as uniquely human, like making connections and educated guesses. But each of these is powered by a very complex algorithm that determines how to best accomplish the task using probability and logic.
If your child can understand and write algorithms, this opens up a whole world of possibility. It allows them to not only use these algorithms more effectively, but also to start writing their own programs and algorithms and solve meaningful problems with code.