Though they may seem complex and intimidating at first, algorithms are both simple to learn and easy to spot in daily life. Not only can kids of all ages learn about algorithms, there are tremendous educational and career benefits to exploring them!
What is an Algorithm?
An algorithm is a set of guidelines that describes how to perform a task. Think of an algorithm as step-by-step instructions that create a predictable pattern in a set of numbers or in lines of code. Mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists develop and implement these “instructions” to provide real-world solutions.
Think of it this way: many introductory lessons introduce algorithms as mathematical “recipes”; and like a recipe, algorithms contain clear steps working towards an established result.
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Rather than discover the final result at the end of the process, algorithms should fulfill a pattern, just like recipes create a particular food. For instance, when following a cupcake recipe, you know you’re going to get cupcakes, not goulash, at the end of the baking process!
With the above, you might have a better idea on the value of algorithms, but let's take a deeper look at why algorithms are important, a few examples, and the best resources for learning all about them.
Why are algorithms important?
First things first, algorithms have been around for a very long time indeed. If you’re wondering who created the first algorithm, we’ll need to travel back to the 9th century. Abdullah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, known as the “Father of Algebra,” wrote the first ever algorithm.
We get it: math is not everyone’s favorite subject. The best way to make math fun is to find real-world applications, use engaging learning activities for students, and sprinkle in some fun facts about math! When learning algorithms, all of these key ingredients are within reach.
Since then, algorithms have become incredibly sophisticated and have a range of applications across aspects of daily life.
Most often, the inner workings of these innovative problem-solvers are driven by numbers and code. Effective algorithms are the ultimate efficiency insurance, as they save programmers and mathematicians tremendous amounts of time.
When well-designed, algorithms should accomplish three objectives: correctly accomplish a task, efficiently “crunch” the information at hand, and present the results in a way humans can understand. They are incredibly important because they revolutionize calculations and drive innovation in STEM and other industries.
There’s no question that our world today would look very different without algorithms. Not only would the internet be a completely different place (or perhaps not exist at all), key decisions made by hospitals, schools, and even public safety & transportation would be a much lengthier, more difficult process.
Examples of Algorithms
How you go about explaining algorithms will depend on the child’s interest and aptitude for complex mathematical and scientific topics. (If your numbers whiz needs an extra motivation boost, perhaps a math competition is just the thing!)
Either way, one good way to go about the conversation or lesson is to just look at the world around us—you might be surprised to find algorithms everywhere.
Most famous of all, Google uses an algorithm, PageRank, to determine which search results appear and in what order, ensuring the highest-quality, most credible websites appear first. Meaning, hundreds of factors are taken into consideration every time a query is searched.
Going back to the above, think about how much information is being crunched when you're searching, and think about the speed at which you get to see results!
YouTube is also known for its recommendation algorithm; the sophisticated code that recommends which video appears as your recommended next watch. The goal? To get viewers to keep consuming video content by trying to present to them the right video at the right time.
Have you ever noticed why, on your social media platform of choice, you seem to see posts from the same people more than others? That's because these social media platforms use algorithms as well, putting posts in front of you based on how relevant they are to you and your browsing needs. This relevance can be determined by how often you interact with posts from certain people, or by the type of content you enjoy.
Often, flow charts are used to explain the process of an algorithm. Take this visual for example; it illustrates how an online checkers algorithm would process the information needed to make the best possible next move.
If you’re interested in getting a little more technical, there are a few essential algorithms that any mathematician or engineer worth their salt should know.
One is Binary search, which sorts through lists of information to quickly find answers, not unlike looking up words in a dictionary.
Next, a merge sort algorithms divide and conquer multiple lists and are useful for crunching a lot of data at a time.
Finally, adding and removing algorithms prune information, if you will, freeing up space for only what is necessary and helpful.
Benefits of learning algorithms
A ready answer to the “what’s in it for me?” question is critical for learning a new skill, especially a challenging one.
Learning algorithms has a number (I could say no pun intended there, but that wouldn’t be strictly true) of educational and intellectual benefits.
Foundation for other STEM fields
Exploring this subject is a great way to “get your feet wet” in multiple facets of STEM. If interested in a career in coding, data science, or some of the other most exciting and highest-paying jobs in STEM, familiarity with algorithms is a must.
Builds logic and problem-solving skills
In many ways, algorithms are turbo-charged problem-solvers. It’s a universal truth that coding can solve world problems, one among the many reasons why coding is important.
It’s a long road to get there, though. Engineers and computer scientists go through many rounds of trial and error before arriving at a viable product. By learning the processes needed to create, test, and implement algorithms, there’s no question students will strengthen their logical and problem-solving skills.
Encourage interdisciplinary thinking
Take the healthcare industry for example. Algorithms are behind the secure storage of medical records, imaging, and even analyzing gene sequences.
That’s just one example of the many ways algorithms revolutionize and innovate the world around us. Far from existing in abstract mathematical isolation, algorithms are everywhere, and they create connections and solutions in a range of industries.
Ready to get started? Check out these handy resources to help your student dive into algorithms!
Best free resources for teaching algorithms to kids
This website has an excellent “CS Fundamentals Unplugged” series for ages four and up. Each lesson works great on its own, or they can be a part of an enriching, long-term computer science passion project for your child!
This engaging resource is easy to make into a quick adventure. CodeMonkey has created a free game that is not only interactive and fun to play, but also high in educational value. Plus, it’s one of the most kid-friendly platforms I’ve ever seen.
Both of these resources focus more on the programming applications of algorithms. If your student could use some inspiration and support in math, check out our catalog of Online Private Lessons, and math tutoring options, specifically.