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May 2, 2011 / Ben Chun

Computational Thinking Illustrations

When I was a kid, I loved books with pictures. Okay, I still love books with pictures. But not just any pictures! The way a book like Anno’s Sundial or a book by David Macaulay presents a whole world of information feels very important to me. Such a book does not have to be read as a linear narrative, yet is far more rich with interconnections than an encyclopedia. Because of this multifaceted presentation, it’s possible for a child (read: me) to spend a large amount of time with the book and thus with the subject. The illustrations, if done well, provide a depth and nuance that would require many pages of written description.

I’ve started collecting books like this (and I’m sure I must have had some as a kid) that treat the subject of computers and computation. Usborn published a series of books in the early 1980s that feature a set of motorcycle-riding robots, and some of them still come in handy as reference material for my students. Going further back, to 1978, George Beker did cartoon robot illustrations in a book called Basic Computer Games.

I think many people learned from these books, not necessarily every detail about the subject, but at least a visual vocabulary upon which abstract ideas could later be hung. A couple years ago, some students at UC Berkeley revived the tradition. Another recent, more general, effort online is called HowToons. The longevity of this trend, and the loving detail with which people will describe their memory of these kinds of books and cartoons, seems to point out the power of illustration.

And now we have a new trend in CS education: Computational Thinking. It seems appropriate for a field as young as computer science to be churning through many iterations of itself, its identity and boundaries and great principles. And while there isn’t yet clear agreement on exactly how to organize this into a consistent set of academic requirements, the other missing element, to my eye, is the cartoons.

In collaboration with artist Tim Piotrowski, I plan to release a set of cartoon illustrations and teaching ideas based on the computational thinking practices articulated in the College Board’s new AP CS Principles curriculum framework and the computational thinking techniques described by Google. They’ll be Creative-Commons licensed so everyone will be able to use them freely. Tim is a great artist and the perfect collaborator for this project.

Creating computational artifacts by Tim Piotrowski

Creating computational artifacts by Tim Piotrowski

Less than a week ago, we launched a project on Kickstarter to raise money for this effort and within a few days it was fully funded. We’ve since broadened the scope of the project to include multi-panel comic strips, and we’re even dreaming of an animated series. For now, we’d love to have your support and input on the project. Bring on the computational thinking cartoons!


Leave a Comment
  1. Amy / May 4 2011 3:48 pm

    Hi Ben,

    I came across your blog from your kickstarter project, and I’m really super inspired by both! It’s been a dream of mine to make comic-book-like supplements to Math/CS textbooks that explain confusing topics because doodling and math were always my 2 favorite things to do in highschool and because I, too, think everything is best explained by cartoons. I was wondering if you could use informal, illustrated handouts for your students for random topics and if so, I would like to volunteer my help! I’d love to talk to you about ideas if you’re interested.


  2. Ria Galanos / Mar 4 2012 5:38 am

    Hi Ben,
    I missed the opportunity to help fund this project. Please let me know if I can help in any way. I’m a big fan of cartoons and comics to help illustrate important ideas. This is so exciting!

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