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Algorithms are all around us in the real world, like traffic lights, and how they work.

We teach our kids from a very early age how to do everyday tasks. We show them how to tie their shoes, walk up the stairs, snap their fingers, whistle, and even how to set the table using a step-by-step procedure. 

From following a recipe to driving a car, everything we do has a process to follow. As kids grow and face more complex problems to solve, they need a strong foundation in algorithmic design and computational thinking to accomplish their goals.

Algorithms and computational thinking are so important for young learners because they teach kids how to solve problems and develop step-by-step processes, both at school and outside the classroom. 

We asked two STEM education experts, Laurie Guyon and David Czechowski, how they best explain real-world algorithm examples to their students and compiled them here. 

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions used to solve complex problems. In many STEM fields, algorithms are used by computer programs to streamline processes. However, algorithms aren’t limited to STEM; they’re found everywhere.

Why Algorithms are Important in Early Education

Algorithms are in everything we do. They’re a crucial part of computational thinking and problem-solving in many areas of life, as we use algorithms to accurately and efficiently execute tasks. 

Laurie Guyon, Sphero Hero and Coordinator for Model Schools in New York, shared, “As a former sixth-grade English teacher, I used algorithmic design in essay writing to talk about sequencing, storyboarding, plot diagrams, and following steps to write a quality essay. We even called the editing process ‘debugging,’ because I found students were more likely to edit their papers if they saw the purpose of making sure their writing made sense to the reader. If we discussed their sentences as lines of code that a human had to read, they understood the importance of the editing process.”

The same can be said for just about anything we do. If you have ever watched a cooking show, the chef walks you through the step-by-step process of creating a delicious meal. Someone who investigates crime has a procedure to discern what happened in an incident and who could be at fault. Algorithms are in everything we do, so it’s important that young learners understand how to recognize and utilize them, Guyon adds.

6 Examples of Real-World Algorithms

Whether algorithms are used in places that aren’t at all surprising, like Google, or in a manual activity that is more unexpected, like brushing your teeth, algorithms play a role in the human experience every single day, Guyon goes on to explain.

1. Sorting Papers

A teacher sorting papers in alphabetical order is an example of a real-world algorithm.

Imagine a teacher sorting their students’ papers according to the alphabetical order of their first names. This type of task is similar to the function of a sorting algorithm, like a bucket sort. By looking at only the first letter of the first name, you can remove a lot of unnecessary information. This is an automated process that makes sorting more efficient.

2. Facial Recognition

Every day we see someone we know: a loved one, a coworker, or even an eccentric neighbor. When we recognize somebody’s face, we’re drawing upon data we’ve previously collected on the size and position of that person’s facial features. That information is then analyzed internally to automatically recognize others.

Facial recognition, both through people we know and through technology, is an example of a real-world algorithm.

Algorithms can automate this process for computers; however, facial recognition is not perfect. In the Netflix series “Coded Bias,” Joy Buolamwini, an activist and computer scientist based at MIT, discusses how algorithms used for facial recognition can be biased. This investigative series finds that facial recognition algorithms often do not recognize dark-skinned faces accurately, uncovering the need for additional work when creating algorithms based on human design.

3. Google Search

Even an action as seemingly simple as a Google search is only possible with the help of algorithms. Say, for example, you want to know if an elephant can swim. How you phrase the question to Google is the input you are asking the computer to determine. 

Google search is a good example of a real-world algorithm.

Google doesn’t even need all the words of the question “can an elephant swim?” For example, try searching for “swimming elephant” and see what you get. You will find that immediately, the output or the results show videos of elephants swimming, followed by more on the subject. Google uses an algorithm to generate these answers without needing the entirety of the question.

4. Duplicating Outcomes  

A teenage boy references a cookbook in the kitchen. Following a recipe is a good example of real-world algorithms in action.

David Czechowski, Computer Science and Technology Teacher at Hyde Park Central Schools, explains this example. “If we want to do well at a given task, it can be extremely helpful to look at previous successful examples from other people. A great daily example of this is using a recipe while cooking. Sure, you might be able to figure out how to make delicious pasta on your own through trial and error, but following a step-by-step recipe from a well-known chef helps ensure success.”

5. Traffic Lights

Czechowski adds, “Here’s an algorithm we frequently experience; the next time you're in your car stuck at a red light, consider the algorithm the traffic light is executing.”

Traffic lights are a great example of how algorithms are used in the real world, all around us.

Most traffic lights don’t automatically cycle through green, yellow, and red. Rather, there are sensory inputs that determine the signals’ timing based on the flow of traffic. The algorithm is a well-constructed, step-by-step order that directs the traffic appropriately (although it may not feel like it when you’re sitting at a red light). 

6. Bus Schedules

Every weekday morning, thousands of buses criss-cross neighborhoods picking up students. Mapping out efficient bus routes is an overwhelming manual task to execute without an algorithm to automate the calculations and schedule the right students for the right addresses at the right time. This routing issue is classically referred to as “The Traveling Salesman Problem" and is even used as an exercise for theoretical computer science, according to Czechowski.

A woman waits for a bus. The schedule busses follow to make on-time arrivals and departures is an example of a real-world algorithm.

Algorithms are all around us, so close and common that we don’t even recognize them as algorithms. From cooking to looking up directions to something simple like tying your shoes, finding algorithms in your day-to-day life may not be as hard as you think.

How Administrators Can Build Confidence with Algorithms

Algorithmic thinking should be a crucial facet in modern education programs, but many schools overlook this topic or are unsure how to approach it. Administrators can take steps to ensure that algorithmic thinking and design are present in their schools.

Administrator’s Corner: Algorithmic thinking can also improve the onboarding or upskilling of teachers. 

When designing professional learning opportunities for current or future teachers, I like to follow an outline or an algorithmic process. I start with a question or activity to get participants engaged, build community, and think about the topic. From there, I like to do something to get them excited about the subject. We dive into the meat of the matter, with lots of time for questions and reflection. This algorithm allows participants to be actively engaged in the learning process and keeps a natural flow for success.

Show Real-World Examples of Algorithms with Sphero

Algorithm design doesn’t have to be complex or daunting. It already plays an important role in our daily lives, even in the simplest tasks we do like Googling questions or organizing papers. Algorithmic thinking is an integral part of computational thinking and is now a necessary life skill.

Young learners can develop algorithmic thinking and design skills both in and out of the classroom with the help of Sphero’s programmable robots and STEM kits.

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