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Nutrition Informatics Blog

Computer Fitness

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Computer Fitness

By Elaine Ayres, MS, RD

I ran across an article in the New York Times several weeks ago that caught my interest. It was called Digital Domain: Computer Science for the Rest of Us. I use a computer and smartphone every day, but just like my car, I have no idea what is under the hood. C# is a programming language, but for me it might as well be a key on a piano. So, the point is, what computer skills are needed for food and nutrition practitioners? What about if we work in informatics?

In the 1999 report from the National Research Council, Committee on Information Technology, called Being Fluent With Information Technology, the authors noted that information technology has quickly become a part of our lives with little warning and no formal education for most. This report identifies the fact that we need more than computer skills—we need “fluency with information technology” or FIT. 

To be FIT, the individual must continually acquire knowledge in three areas:

1.   The ability to use new applications and technology not only to work in the current labor market, but to create experience on which to build new and rapidly changing skills 

2.   The understanding of foundational concepts of computing, networks—the how and why of informational technology—to help comprehend technology as it evolves

3.   The ability to apply information technology to complex situations, and take advantage of new mediums for problem solving 

Think about how you made travel reservations in 1999 or communicated with family, friends, and colleagues. My cell phone back then was a trapezoidal brick with an antenna. Computer fitness impacts our ability to manage information technology related to all aspects of our lives—personal, workplace, educational, and more than ever, society as a whole.

While we adapt to new applications and use information technology to find information or solve a problem, the notion of adding computer science to our list of skills as dietitians remains a thorny issue. However, I think there is a middle ground—computational thinking.  Jeannette Wing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh believes that computational thinking is a skill for everyone, not just computer scientists. Computational thinking draws on concepts fundamental to computer science—problem solving, abstraction, algorithms, and inductive reasoning. These patterns of thinking engender creative problem solving and the ability to better understand “what is happening under the hood.” Computer scientists learn these concepts through programming. Wing maintains the rest of us need to learn them, preferably beginning in kindergarten.

Want a great example of parallel processing (a computer science concept)? Think of cooking a meal and making sure that the main dish is done at the same time as the vegetables. What about pipelining? Think about moving through a cafeteria line. Our education and training programs need to develop other examples of applying computational thinking to our profession.

Informatics competencies are now a necessary reality for members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Adding informational technology fluency and computational thinking to our repertoire of skills in all areas of practice, not just informatics, will ensure that we stay “computationally fit” for the future. 


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