Computational thinking becomes the third core subject for EPFL engineers

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EPFL is a pioneer in teaching engineers the fundamentals of computational thinking – a topic that has revolutionized scientific research and could have ramifications on many aspects of our daily lives. In September 2018, we introduced a revamped version of our introduction to computational thinking course, and in the future will include this topic in our Master’s and PhD programs as well.

In addition to math and physics, today’s engineers must be adept in a third subject: computational thinking. While the first two attempt to model natural processes through rigorous equations, the third aims to spell out those processes in a way that computers can understand. More specifically, computational thinking involves crunching through vast amounts of data to solve highly complex problems and achieve breakthroughs that were previously unimaginable. Applications range from quantum chemistry to self-driving cars and simulations of the universe.

In 2013, EPFL became one of the first universities to offer an introduction to computational thinking course – called Information, Computation and Communication (ICC) – to all first-year engineering students. This course is designed to teach them how to structure problems so that a computer can calculate the answer.

In September 2018 we introduced a single, revamped course, with its focus on the basics of computer science. Through our pioneering approach, we aim to not only give students cutting-edge skills in this important new field, but also make them aware of the associated ethical issues.

«While mathematics and physics attempt to model natural processes through rigorous equations, computational thinking aims to spell out those processes in a way that computers can understand.»

A key element of our approach is that it prompts engineers to look beyond the technical aspects of a problem and consider the broader impact of computational thinking – such as the potential to use algorithms to influence public opinion. Going forward, we intend to continue developing our engineers’ computational thinking skills across all our degree programs, from Bachelor’s and Master’s through to PhD.

We will also reinforce our two-pronged approach combining technical knowledge with an emphasis on the societal challenges arising from what stands to become an essential tool for all types of engineers.

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