Given the choice of studying algebra or video games, most teens would opt for the games. But what if there were a way to do both at the same time? Through Bootstrap, an education outreach program, WPI computer science professor Kathi Fisler and two collaborators are accomplishing just that, using gaming as the ‘spoonful of sugar’ to get kids excited about how algebra works and working computer science into the public school curriculum across socio-economic lines.
Fisler and her co-directors, Emmanuel Schanzer (Bootstrap founder and creator) and Shriram Krishnamurthi (professor of computer science at Brown University), developed the Bootstrap program in 2007 and began piloting it in the New York City school district last year. The project has been so successful that the city’s board of education has formally announced plans to have computer science available to all public school students in the next 10 years.
Select schools across the country also employ the program. Locally, Bootstrap partners with the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), an organization working to bring CS to schools across the state.
Bootstrap clicks with kids, says Fisler, not just because gaming is fun, but because the program changes how kids look at algebra.
Bootstrap takes one key part of algebra, studying multiple representations of functions and how they connect, and embraces multiple representations of functions to help students see where functions come from, she says.
In addition, each student “designs” a game with a player, a target (for the player to collide with), and a danger (for the player to avoid). The students solve a series of algebraic word problems to move each character, wrap them around when they drift off-screen, and detect collisions. Thus the students think they are building a videogame, but are really practicing a process to solve word problems in algebra.
“We change the equation by making word problems concrete in a problem the kids care about, and in giving them a step-by-step approach to work the problems. We add the use of computing to let them see–and experiment with–the fruits of their labor,” she says.
The program’s success comes not only in motivating the kids to learn algebra through computer science, but also in finding a way to get computer science into middle schools and lower high school grades. That’s partly because of economics—computing jobs are plentiful and better paid—and partly because computing doesn’t fit in many states’ requirements, Fisler says.
For the most part, only schools serving upper-middle-class students can afford computer teachers. So how to offer computing classes in lower-income neighborhoods?
“Our approach is to develop an intro computing module that looks a lot like math to a math teacher, that fits into a math class in terms of learning objectives, and doesn’t require the teacher to learn a lot of CS concepts beyond what they know from math. This way, we can train math teachers, which every school already has, to offer a bit of computing,” she says.
“Many other projects that try to get more teachers prepared to offer computing cover a lot more CS material than we do, so the learning curve for the teacher is much higher. They use programming languages and tools that require the teacher to master more new concepts before they can do something interesting. Just as important, they don’t tie into existing school requirements.
“Bootstrap, in contrast, puts computing in the direct service of math, as defined by various state and national math standards. We map from our lessons to those standards on our website,” she adds.
The Bootstrap program’s roots go back 20 years to Rice University, according to Fisler. A group of researchers, including herself and Krishnamurthi, created a project to teach program-design principles in intro CS courses. That curriculum, now called Program by Design, featured a step-by-step recipe for going from a word problem to a program that solved it. It also had tools for building animations and interactive games using straightforward functions like you would write in an algebra class in middle or high school, but was targeted at high school and university courses.
Some years later, Schanzer, then a math teacher at an inner city Boston-area high school, began to adapt this curriculum (which he had seen as an undergrad) to try to help his students learn algebraic functions. That adaptation became Bootstrap.
Fisler says Bootstrap plans to build on its success so far: expanding its reach by training more teachers, studying what makes the program effective for teachers and students, and offering more advanced training for teachers who want to get into games with two-dimensional movement, among other plans.
Ultimately, “We want to be a standard part of math curricula nationwide, with a solid research base on actual impact on learning in students and teachers,” says Fisler. “We want to help get better math education and some exposure to computing into as many schools as we can, figuring out how to help their teachers get them there in scalable and sustainable ways.”
– BY CATE PRATO