NUI Maynooth Kilkenny Campus

Short course - Introduction to Computational Thinking

"Computational Thinking" has been described as "a way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science".

The power of computation has revolutionised many areas of study by providing massive analytical power, speed and accuracy. Through spin-off technologies such as the Internet it has had a huge impact on everyday life in this century. Yet, lying behind the machines and technology, computer science embodies a truly revolutionary approach to characterising actions, describing abstraction and formalising solutions.

This six-lecture course will attempt to provide a snapshot of some topics from computer science at a conceptual level, focusing on the relationships with everyday life. (No previous programming experience is needed). A central theme will be self-reference, and topics will include fractals, L-systems, cellular automata, as well as the strange reflections leading to the discoveries by Kurt Gödel.

2012 is a great year to be talking about these topics not just because we've launched a BSc in Computational Thinking at NUI Maynooth, but also because this is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing. Turing was one of those who, in 1936, harnessed the work of Kurt Gödel to found the new discipline of computer science. Turing Year Logo

Course Textbook

Fish and Chips

The Computational Beauty of Nature by Gary William Flake, MIT Press, 2000.

The book's web site has a series of Java applets that illustrate some of its themes.


Lecture 1,
13 Feb 2012
Lecture 2,
20 Feb 2012
Lecture 3,
27 Feb 2012
  • The Lotka-Volterra equation gave us a way of making Fibonacci's rabbits a little more interesting through the introduction of predators; the applets from CBoN include a simulator that allows you to experiment with the parameters.
  • Another approach comes via Cellular Automata. Stephen Wolfram is a good reference point here, through mathworld, his tome A New Kind of Science, and queries to Wolfram Alpha such as "rule 110" or "3-color code 1086". The CBoN applet lets you experiment with these also, but uses the totalistic rule-numbering system.
    The firing squad synchronisation problem provided an example of a "real" problem being solved by a 1-D CA.
  • These CA scaled to two-dimensions, most famously with Conway's Game of Life, but also with eco-system simulation and Daisy World. If you feel like downloading the CDF reader from, then you can play with some nice demonstrations of 2D and 3D cellular automata.
Lecture 4,
5 Mar 2012
  • The previous examples all had system-wide behaviour models, but what if we give individuals some more power? Examples include the wood-chip collecting termites from Mitchel Resnick at MIT, or the flock-like behaviour of the Boids by Craig Reynolds (a slightly more sophisticated example lets you put in obstacles). It's worth comparing these with approaches using cellular-automata, such as the forest fire model.
  • From here we moved up gear to "programming" at the species level, with genetic algorithms (and a debt to Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker) - particularly the biomorphs. We also looked at the famous travelling salesman problem which could be solved using a genetic algorithm. You can even apply genetic algorithms to Sudoku.
Lecture 5,
12 Mar 2012
  • This is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing one of the founders of Computer Science, and who also made contributions in many other areas.
  • One notable area was in the foundations of Artificial Intelligence, with the famous Turing Test. We also saw some other opinions, ranging from de La Mettrie in 1748 to Marvin Minsky and Roger Penrose more recently (try searching for some of their videos on YouTube).
  • In Computer Science, Turing is probably most famous for the Turing machine; it's worthwhile to play with this and other models of computation using tools such as JFlap.
Lecture 6,
26 Mar 2012

Course Tutor

Dr. James Power, Department of Computer Science, NUI Maynooth.

Further Reading

Some of the more intersting books in the area include:

Organisational Details

Where? Kilkenny Campus (NUI Maynooth), College Road, Kilkenny
When? Monday evenings 7-9 pm, February 13th - March 26th
How much? 6 week course fee 100 euro.

For more information, see the Kilkenny Campus website.

James Power,
Dept. of Computer Science, NUI Maynooth
Last revised: 27 March 2012