Can Math Teachers Teach Computer Science?

Worcester Polytechnic Institute will partner with Brown University and Bootstrap to examine how students and teachers learn math and computer science—and how to ease the coming shortage of computer science teachers.
October 09, 2015

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A team of computing education experts that includes a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) professor will study how students—and teachers—learn mathematics and computer science, and how those ways of learning can influence each other. The study, funded by a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $1.5 million, is of critical importance as middle schools and high schools across the country look to integrate computer science into their curricula, while at the same time grappling with a projected shortage of computer science teachers.

"Math and computer science are usually taught in different ways that don't align, but we've developed an approach that integrates them to enable transfer of skills from one to the other," said Kathi Fisler, a WPI computer science professor with more than 20 years of experience in computing education. "We're looking at ways to apply the skills math teachers already have—like algebra—to teaching computer science courses, in order to better prepare students for science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] fields."

The three-year grant, "Exploring Transfer Between Computing and Algebra and its Effects on Mathematics Pedagogy and Self-efficacy in Computing Teachers," builds on prior work by Fisler and longtime collaborators and research partners Shriram Krishnamurthi, professor of computer science at Brown University, and Emmanuel Schanzer, of Bootstrap, a program that teaches algebra and geometry through computer programming of video games. Fisler, Krishnamurthi, and Schanzer developed Bootstrap a decade ago; it has since been integrated into math and technology classes in school districts across the country.

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Bootstrap was one of a small number of programs piloted last year by Computer Science New York City (CSNYC), an organization created to bring computer science curriculum into New York City Schools. In September, mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan to make computer science courses available to all New York City public school students within ten years.

Describing algebra as "the gatekeeper for most STEM jobs," Fisler and colleagues are excited to further explore the connection between math and computer science. Implementing computer science courses in the schools poses a challenge, as few middle schools and high schools have computer science teachers on staff, and few states offer teacher certification in the area. (Also, school districts often must compete with higher-paying private sector employers in recruiting computer science professionals.)

Because the Bootstrap pedagogy is familiar to math teachers—"it uses a step-by-step approach to solving word problems, albeit in the context of programming a simple video game," Fisler said—it’s "a gentle introduction to computing for math teachers, who already exist in every school."

Bootstrap grew out of Program by Design, a prior computer education curriculum developed by Fisler, Krishnamurthi, and others that teaches a step-by-step approach to developing programs using concepts from algebra. The curriculum grows with students from introductory computing through advanced CS courses. Bootstrap tailored this design approach to the needs and background of middle school students.

The NSF grant, which will be administered by Brown University, will support research into how well teachers migrate from math to computing or computing to math. The research will also analyze data related to how students and teachers work with the curriculum, and whether students’ math and computing skills improve through Bootstrap training.