Algebra Can Be A Game
IP&T program brings math to life
Algebra is a tough subject that many students have to struggle with. What’s more, these mathematical abstractions leave many students wondering, “How am I even going to use this when I’m older?” Instructional Psychology & Technology (IP&T) professor Peter Rich sees an opportunity to address both issues.
In the late 1960’s an MIT professor named Seymour Papert developed a simple computer programming language called Logo, which was intended to improve children’s critical thinking and mathematics skills. “In study after study, there were loads of positive results,” explains Rich. “Children showed increased problem solving, pattern recognition, fraction comprehension, and creativity.”
As computers became more complex, Logo and similar programs slowly died out. However, the need for students to develop the skills that programs like Logo taught remains. “A lot of students today still have problems understanding variables and functions,” notes Rich. “And probably one of the most consistent complaints is that students don’t see the purpose behind them.”
Demonstrating with a typical computer game, Rich showed how something as simple as programing a character to move across the screen can teach young students important concepts like coordinate systems and order of operations, at the same time showing them how algebra can be applied in the real world. As Rich explains, “Students have the opportunity to learn a lot by learning to create a simple game.”
About six years ago a recent graduate of Cornell came to the same realization while trying to teach functions to high school students in Boston. “I realized that all day long computer programmers are writing and testing functions,” recalls Emmanuel Schanzer, who is currently earning his PhD at Harvard. As a former programmer, Schanzer thought, “If I could teach students how to program, I’d be teaching them how to think about functions.”
Out of that idea came Bootstrap, an after-school program created by Schanzer to teach middle school students algebra through helping them program their own computer games. When Rich heard about what Schanzer was doing, he and others from the IP&T, Technology & Engineering and Mathematics Education Departments worked with Bootstrap to bring the curriculum to Utah schools.
This past year Bootstrap was introduced to students at Vista Heights Middle School, Dixon Middle School, and Lehi High School. The program typically ran two or three times per week for six weeks and included students from 7th to 12th grades. After the program, students showed significant improvement in their understanding of variables and functions, although perhaps the most important change was how they viewed the work. One student noted that although he had to create equations in both math and in programming, that in programming, “the equations came to life.”
“What we saw, beyond the improvements, was that students were excited about what they were doing,” says Technology and Engineering Education graduate student Robert Lee, who wrote his thesis on the effectiveness of the Bootstrap program. “We had students who were taking their games home and saying, ‘Look what I did, mom!’” We even had a student make a game for his English class after the course was over.”
Rich hopes that in the future the Bootstrap program can be implemented on a long-term basis. “We honestly didn’t have a lot of time,” Rich reflects. “The question is if the impact is even greater over time.”