When you think of an average computer game programmer, an 11-year-old is probably not what comes to mind. Emmanuel Schanzer, an E­dD student at Harvard University, begs to differ. Last month, Schnanzer met with IP&T students from the McKay School to discuss his new initiative to teach algebra through simple computer programming.

After receiving a degree in computer science from Cornell, Emmanuel Schanzer sought a job teaching algebra to high school students in Boston. It was here that Schanzer realized the potential of simple computer programming for helping students understand algebraic equations. “All day long computer programmers are writing and testing functions,” Schanzer noted. As a former programmer, he thought, “If I could teach students how to program, I’d be teaching them how to think about functions.”

"All day long computer programmers are writing and testing functions. I thought if I could teach students how to program, I’d be teaching them how to think about functions." Schanzer’s idea led to the creation of Bootstrap, an after school program that utilizes an algebraic computer programming language called Racket to teach middle school aged students basic algebra skills. The goal is to get students excited and confident about algebra at an age at which important and life-changing assumptions are made.

“In middle school, students start to form concrete attributions about themselves and the world around them,” Schanzer explained. “Once formed, these attributions are very difficult to change.” For this reason Bootstrap aims to work with eleven-to-thirteen-year-olds, hoping to give them a positive experience with algebra before or during the process of forming attributions. “If you’re starting to teach students algebra after these attributions are formed, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

Bootstrap began in 2006, with just one school in South Boston. Today the program reaches hundreds of students in over seven different states. Typically the program runs in urban environments, where over 70% of the students are living below the poverty line.

In Utah several middle schools have already shown interest in adopting Bootstrap. In fact, the program has already been active for a month at Dixon Middle School in Provo. Those interested in taking part can read more about Bootstrap here.

30 May 2011