Teaching Computation in the Sciences

Concepts on this page were derived from participant presentations, discussions, and breakout groups at the 2015, 2016, and 2017 workshops.

Computation is the use of computers to perform calculations, model data, make predictions, and test hypotheses. Computational skills are necessary to apply quantitative skills in complex scientific contexts and with large data sets. Computational thinking requires students to be comfortable with language and tools, such as MATLAB, that enables them to express and explore solutions to scientific problems. Computational skills can be applied to scientific tasks such as exploring equations, acquiring and visualizing data, writing scripts and functions, and statistical analysis. With unprecedented data availability there are numerous new science and engineering opportunities if one has computational skills. Computation also help students reinforce and improve their math skills and gain a deeper understanding of foundational scientific principles. Improving students' abilities to explore, analyze, and solve scientific problems, as well as deepening their understanding of math and their scientific discipline highlight the need to incorporate computation into undergraduate science programs.

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Approaches to Teaching Computation

MATLAB is powerful tool for teaching computation because it allows for robust data analysis, data visualization and exploration, modeling, and working with real data sets. If the use of MATLAB is scaffolded in a course or curriculum, it is a tool that can help students build self-efficacy with computation and develop computational skills across the curriculum. In addition, it is user-friendly and there is a low threshold for incorporating MATLAB in the classroom. The low threshold is highlighted in the getting started with MATLAB section with a presentation on the range of MATLAB teaching capabilities and a list of resources for MATLAB training.

Getting Started with MATLAB

Teaching with MATLAB
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During the 2016 workshop on teaching computation with MATLAB, Paul Kassebaum from MathWorks discussed the value of computational thinking and tools to get students started with MATLAB. Paul showed that students can use MATLAB to run interactive simulations, solve problems numerically or analytically, extract, analyze, and visualize experimental data, model and simulate phenomena to build intuition, express and simulate equations to test hypotheses, and simulate analytical models to test predictions. He also discussed resources on the MathWorks website that can be useful for implementing computation using MATLAB into your courses. For example:

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Teaching Collections and Materials

Explore teaching activities, essays, and course descriptions submitted by educators.

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MATLAB-based classroom activities, laboratory exercises, problem sets, and other assignments.

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Educator perspectives on how teaching with MATLAB can enhance the student learning.

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Course descriptions and syllabi for courses on (or that integrate) MATLAB.

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Tools and other resources

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