Math for Computer Science: Breaking down barriers to early computer science education

FutureSet_2d-game-design.jpg


Eric Bennett, M.Ed., directs
Future Set Tech Camp, where creativity meets technology in project-based STEM summer camps, Saturday workshops, and after-school programs. He joins us on the blog to explain why he created a free online Math for Computer Science course for kids.


The idea that elementary-aged children will benefit from a course on a buzzy programming language is certainly appealing to well-intentioned parents: understanding the world around us increasingly means understanding technology; jobs in software engineering and information technology are both high-paying and in-demand; many children are naturally curious about technology. The problem with this idea is that writing even the most basic computer program requires an understanding of math concepts beyond the scope of a typical elementary curriculum. If students lack this math knowledge, computer science instruction will not have the intended benefit: students might be able to copy an instructor’s code but will not understand how it works or be able to produce code of their own.

Since math is used so extensively in computer science, is it possible that students will learn it through the process of writing a computer program or developing a video game? While the notion of learning math through games or in the context of a fun project is seductive, the reality is that mathematics is best learned through structured practice. Procedural fluency, as it is termed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), is a critical component to teaching mathematics, and fluency is only developed through repetition. Creative applications such as coding or game development will certainly enhance a child’s understanding but cannot replace more rigorous instruction.

FutureSet_ten-frame.jpg

For these reasons, mathematics has often been used as a prerequisite for computer science courses: students are allowed to enroll in a computer science course only after completing a particular mathematics course. While this approach ensures that students are prepared to reap the benefits of a computer science course, it also creates a barrier to entry. Thus, whether students simply lack math knowledge or it is enforced as a prerequisite, the benefits of courses in computer programming and video game development are limited for many interested students. Two solutions to this problem are clear: the first would involve selecting computer science curriculum that does not require this math knowledge; the second would be to deliver targeted mathematics instruction to interested students.

Front-end web design involves HTML and CSS, both of which are markup languages rather than programming languages. Just as a word processor can be instructed to adjust font sizes, spacing, and alignment, markup languages can be used to add structure to the words on a web page. While numbers can be used to specify sizes, dimensions, and positions within these markup languages, they cannot be expressed as variables, expressions, or equations. Thus, HTML and CSS are an excellent introduction to computer science for elementary-aged students. However, because most of these students are more interested in creating a fun game than an informative website, this solution may not be ideal.

The math concepts involved in computer programming and video game development are typically taught to older students, so this content should be presented to elementary students in a different way. Visual models and manipulatives are often used to assist struggling students and are promoted by the NCTM for their effectiveness in teaching conceptual understanding. These techniques, then, should serve elementary students well in tackling more advanced math concepts. Additionally, in computer programming, calculations are made by the computer program rather than the computer programmer. For the purposes of computer science readiness, then, tedious fraction and decimal arithmetic can be pushed aside in favor of integer operations and more abstract concepts like variables and variable expressions. For an example of a curriculum constructed according to these principles, check out Future Set Tech Camp’s Math for Computer Science, a free online course.

Rather than using mathematics as a barrier to entry, closing the door to many interested students, we can use computer science to motivate these students to learn specific, carefully presented math concepts. With so many children naturally drawn to technology and our job market’s demand for computer science skills stronger than ever, there are clear benefits in delivering computer science education to elementary-aged students. With the right mathematics and computer science curriculum, these benefits can be fully realized.


Eric Bennett

Teen Sister Circles: Where girls discover their power

TeenSisterCircles.jpg

Guest contributor Heather Hoover is the director of GS Teen Sister Circles Division for Global Sisterhood. Based in Austin, Texas, and serving 85 countries worldwide, Global Sisterhood provides a community platform for the feminine rising through in-person Sister Circles and online transformational resources. Heather has a background in education and social services as a teacher and director.  She has facilitated women’s circles for almost 15 years and is currently a mother to three children, ages 12, 9, and 7.


I can remember some specific moments in my life, as a young girl growing up, that made a mark on me as a person. These moments defined who I would become and shaped some deep-seated beliefs about myself. They were not all moments of joy and triumph but often darker times when I doubted myself, felt insecure, isolated, and concerned about what others thought about me. These moments deeply affected how I would relate to others as an adult.

Most adults remember our middle school and high school days as times of awkwardness due to our changing bodies and hormones that made us feel different and out of place. We can chalk it up to “just the teenage years” —we all go or “grow” through it.

But imagine if we had had a safe and intentional space to explore those feelings, or to process our problems, our insecurities, fears, and doubts. Imagine if we had had a place where we felt truly seen, heard, and accepted without judgment, and a place that could have given us the tools to build a foundation for self-confidence, communication skills, relating to others, trusting, and knowing our own inner guidance.

I imagine things would have been very different if I’d had those opportunities. It might not have been as much work to get to the place of trust in myself and others where I am today. Unfortunately, many adult women I know have never been able to shed the negative beliefs about themselves that were created early on, and they still deal with self-doubt around their own value.

I especially see this, now, as a mother of my 12-year-old daughter and two other children. I’m also seeing how very different the world is from when I grew up. In some ways, the pressures on young girls are the same, and in other ways, they are accentuated and more intense with social media.  It is imperative that girls and young people be provided the tools to navigate all of the social and emotional stresses of living in the world today.

Offering young women safe and authentic in-person connections and support is essential so that they can understand their truth, tap into what their heart truly desires, and believe they can achieve it.

This is what leads me to my current work.

Sister Circles

I work with Global Sisterhood, a consciously minded business that enables women all over the world to gather in safe and authentic spaces to remove our masks, be heard, be seen, and be supported with community and transformational themes essential to women’s empowerment. These circles have literally changed my life and the lives of many women I have witnessed over the years.

Through my own growth, my passion was born. Today, I create safe and fun spaces for teen girls to discover how to have a healthy body image, navigate social media, trust and know their inner voice, communicate their boundaries clearly, be able to resolve conflict, and grow in their abilities to be resilient leaders who know their innate worth and value.

Often, women in our adult circles have voiced, “If only I’d had a space like this when I was younger.” This is why Global Sisterhood is now creating Teen Sister Circles to support girls all over the world to feel supported, safe, seen, and heard, so they can trust themselves and fully step into their gifts and power.

I began this work when I was a teacher at the Whole Life Learning Center, where my colleague and I facilitated Teen Sister Circles. It was amazing to see the girls open up, be vulnerable, share, and recognize they were not alone in their process. It was a nourishing space filled with art, music, movement, activities, deep sharing, games, a time to make friends, a sweet and safe space just to be.

In another teen sister circle I was part of, I also witnessed tremendous self-esteem grow within the girls, and it was an honor to help guide this process. I remember one girl was very shy and afraid to express herself, but at the end of our circles, at the graduation, she read a letter to her mother on forgiveness, and by choice read it in front of all the girls and their parents. It was powerful and moved all of us to tears. It was a privilege to watch the change in this beautiful young woman and the confidence that was blossoming in her.

Research shows that by supporting women and girls we change the world, and through my work with teen girls, I believe this to be true.I believe that through Teen Sister Circles, we can greatly enhance our daughters’ lives and prevent young girls from developing negative beliefs about themselves through social pressures and our fast-paced modern culture.  Our girls need a safe and sacred space to share what’s really going on inside their hearts and minds, so they can feel empowered and confident in who they are and who they are becoming.

What and who: Our first 6-week series for middle school girls (6th–8th grade)
When:
Sunday afternoons, 2–4pm, January 27–March 3, 2019
Where:
The Launch Wellness Center, Central Austin
How much:
$120 for the full 6-week series

The result of this series will be your daughter feeling confident to be herself and stand up for her values and truths.

If you are interested in learning more about Teen Sister Circles and the topics we cover in our six-session series, for your daughter or gender-neutral youth, please contact me: heather@globalsisterhood.org. It is my hope that these Teen Sister Circles can offer your daughter the space, time, and opportunities for reflection that will help her know herself as the unique, special young woman that you truly know her to be.


Heather Hoover

Smart City Saturday: Teen hackathon addresses youth trafficking

SmartCitySaturday_blue.png

Guest contributor Sarah Hernholm is the founder and president of WIT – Whatever It Takes and creator of Smart City Saturday, which hosts teen hackathons in four U.S. cities. She joins us on the blog to explain what’s in store for teens who join the upcoming January hackathon in downtown Austin.

We aren’t voiceless.
—Grace V., during her interview on NBC 7
when asked why she attended Smart City Saturday

 
Many of the teens who attend Smart City Saturday (SCS) arrive to the event feeling a little apprehensive, slightly unsure of what to expect, and unaware of the transformation they are about to experience. From the get-go, they are diving into the topic of the hackathon. This year, 2018–2019, SCS is focusing on youth trafficking—specifically challenges connected to education and prevention. Teens get to hear from survivors and thrivers and work directly with experts in the subject matter as well as coaches in design thinking and problem solving. They work alongside teens from different schools, backgrounds, and ages. The experience is a game changer for all involved. You can hear directly from teens who’ve experienced SCS in this video from a San Diego news report:

Upcoming Austin Hackathon

We are excited to bring the Smart City Saturday hackathon to Austin, Texas, on Saturday, January 26, from 10am to 6:30pm. The event will be hosted by Google at Google HQ downtown. Thanks to Snap Kitchen, all teens will enjoy a delicious and healthy lunch. In addition, SCS has partnered with Socrata, the City of Austin, and other organizations to make sure teens have access to data, resources, and individuals who will help them have a successful hackathon experience. 

Getting Involved

SCS is looking for 50 teens who are ready to tackle the issue of youth trafficking in Austin. Applications are being accepted online here. Once your application is received, it will be reviewed, and you will receive acceptance information within 48 hours. There are fees associated with this event, but financial aid is provided to all teens in need. Also, all teens have the chance to win up to $1,000 in prize money. 

Never Too Young

Smart City Saturday is a program put on by the nonprofit organization WIT – Whatever It Takes. WIT provides opportunities for high school teens to develop their emotional intelligence as they become entrepreneurs and community activists. It hosts the only 6-unit college-credit social entrepreneur class in the country for high school teens. You can read more about WIT at doingwit.org. The people of WIT believe you are never too young to make a big impact.


Sarah Hernholm

Learning (and loving) math through games

Math Pentathlon.jpg


Dr. Mandy Menzer is a psychologist in private practice in South Austin. In addition, she is currently the Math Pentathlon coordinator at AHB Community School. Dr. Menzer has been involved in the Math Pentathlon program as a coach, game monitor, and parent for nine years. We’re excited to welcome Dr. Menzer to the blog today as a guest contributor. If you have any questions about Math Pentathlon or participating in the AHB Math Pentathlon program (your kid does not have to be enrolled full-time at AHB), you can contact her at mandy@drmenzer.com.
 

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?
Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor


It is a common refrain for adults in our society to talk about how math is boring or complicated when it comes time to divide up a check or calculate the compound interest on our mortgage, for example. Is it any surprise that kids from an early age pick up on math as something to be avoided at all costs? As parents, we struggle with how to help our kids get through the never-ending grind of multiplication tables and percentages before moving on to the mysteries of Algebra and other advanced-level math, where we really start to feel out of our league.

And yet, there is an activity that kids actually enjoy doing that integrates all different types of mathematical and quantitative reasoning. GAMES!  Virtually any game that you can think of incorporates some type of mathematical concept that kids already understand at a practical level and that a sneaky parent or educator can further build on. Monopoly? Keeping track of the money in your hand and adding and subtracting to your stash. In fact, any game involving dice (or cards, for that matter) can lead to discussions around probability, even in terms of something as simple as which properties you should buy (the answer is anything within 7 spaces of a frequent landing spot such as Go or Jail).

Have a kid who is into sports? Chances are that they know a lot of numbers and statistics around their favorite player or team, which they may be more than happy to spend time digging into. Even a “word” game like Scrabble contains a lot of math, in terms of Which letters give me the most points? and How can I stick those letters on some big multipliers?

And lest we forget, video games can also integrate math skills, such as visual-spatial reasoning, problem solving, pattern recognition, and strategic thinking. I know that nothing else in life has challenged my brain as much as some of the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda videogame series.

As a psychologist and mom to two boys, as well as a huge math dork myself, I have long believed that games can be the gateway drug to achievement in math. Certainly, kids who enjoy mathematical activities are more likely to spend time practicing it (or at least make the nightly math homework less of a battle), and there seems to be data to back this up. “A new study led by Johns Hopkins University psychologists shows Bedtime Math’s Crazy 8 club significantly reduces children’s feelings of math anxiety after eight weeks of participation in the club. The effect was more pronounced among younger kids in kindergarten through second grade club.”

So how can I get started?

  1. Figure out what kinds of games your kids are into, and play with them! Depending on the age of your kid, sneak some extra thought questions in here and there (“Hmmm, is it worth selling off a cheaper Monopoly property here to build a third house on this property over there?”) or simply play dumb (“I’m not sure if I have enough money to build all three of these things . . .”). Engage them in a conversation as to whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and make them back it up with stats and data.
  2. Make everyday activities into math games. In my carpool, we routinely guess what time we will arrive at school. We have discovered that it generally takes about 11 minutes from Lady Bird Lake to get to school, so if they want to claim the “11-minute guess,” they have to do the math to figure out what time it will be 11 minutes from now. Older kids may really get incentivized by the whole concept of compound interest if you make it worth their while (“If you’ll save some of your allowance, I’ll give you 10% interest, compounded weekly.”) After all, who doesn’t like free money?
  3. Find games and activities that have math components that YOU enjoy, and model that for them. Candy Crush? Pattern recognition. Gardening or building projects require a lot of geometry and measurement. You may not need to add anything new; simply verbalize and acknowledge the mathematical elements in what you are already enjoying and let your kid see your enjoyment.

In addition, there are numerous games, apps, and activities that are specifically geared toward “math fun.” Some of my favorites include:

If you are interested in a way to get some consistent and fun math time in this school year, you can consider joining the Math Pentathlon program, which is offered by many local schools. If your school does not offer a program, feel free to join ours, which starts up September 12. We have a few slots available for kids who are in Kindergarten through 3rd grade. My family has participated 10 times with two wildly different children, and it’s always been a wonderful experience for us. Contact me, Dr. Mandy Menzer, at mmh20cornell@yahoo.com with any questions.


Dr. Mandy Menzer

What is a “wicked” problem?

WickedWorkshop-3.JPG

Wicked Workshop is a maker-based experience that introduces youth to architecture through reality-based projects that tackle "wicked" problems such as inadequate housing and environmental health. The workshops are led by today’s guest contributor, Phyllis Henderson (Fifi), a parent of two with a 20+ year background in architecture, design, teaching, and research focused on the human experience of the built environment and nature.


What is a “wicked” problem?

A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have one right answer. Environmental degradation, homelessness, and poverty are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they also may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

What are we doing?

We offer a K–12 maker program that introduces decision-making strategies for complex problem solving and critical thinking opportunities that are recognized as vital 21st-century skills necessary to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.  We do this through a straightforward hands-on curriculum that incrementally introduces materials and methods of construction, environmental and climate considerations, and cultures from around the globe. Students achieve global education, civic literacy, and advocacy while practicing adaptability, self-direction, collaboration, and leadership.

How do we do it?

We approach a wicked problem such as inadequate housing by first introducing a house from a particular culture. Students learn about structure, materials, construction, society, culture, environment, geography, and geometry through drawing and making. For example, for the Tatami House, we will visit Japanese culture and wood construction; for the Toltec Clay House we look at clay/mud and straw structures and Central African cultures. Students then apply their knowledge to design and construct their own iteration (or several iterations) that will ultimately be placed within a community setting and address the wicked problem.  This basic structure gives us ample opportunity to explore issues of citizenship and community while maintaining personalization and individual growth.
 

WickedWorkshop-2.JPG


Why do we do it?

The positive implications and opportunities of the Wicked Workshop are far reaching for education and society. Students learn about partnerships and the value of collaboration as we directly engage community experts who are themselves working on wicked problems.  Students will present their work in a casual gallery setting for friendly constructive critique, suggestions for next steps, and how their ideas translate to real-world civic applications or possible service opportunities.

Will this be too complex for my Kindergartener or too simple for my 12th grader?

Not at all!  This program is designed to be open-ended to support learners at varying levels of maturity. We bring big ideas to a younger audience in a makerspace environment that is friendly and stress-free.  We encourage independent thinking, self-directed learning, exploration, iteration, and creativity.  We ask thinkers to make and makers to think through safe exploration where there are no wrong answers. We layer technical information in a makerspace way—through building, drawing, and talking about our ideas. For example, when we introduce inadequate housing to Kindergarteners (a wicked problem), we might talk about a fallen bird house or a fairy garden without proper water supply. For older students, we might look at the Tiny House Community (Community First! Village) in Austin and explore more complex urban density concepts.

WickedWorkshop-1.JPG

Why such “big problems”?  My child likes crafts and making things but doesn’t want more “school” after school.

Neither do we! We are motivated toward making and tinkering. We will be making models, drawings, books, board games, cities, animal habitats, and more as we explore all aspects of the built environment.  When we find surprises in our research, we will explore them through making. “Big problems” serve as the real-world framework to guide decision-making and introduce the concept of civic responsibility and societal engagement—a role often played by the architect. We’re not planning to solve the world’s problems; however, big problems bring big ideas, and kids are capable of incredible things when given adequate time and space.  The goal of the studio workshop is to encourage each student to develop a process for making decisions (big and small) and to cultivate a level of comfort for giving and accepting criticism in an environment of self-discovery and thoughtful guidance.

Where did the idea for Wicked Workshop come from, and who’s teaching it?

My name is Phyllis Henderson, but I am called by my nickname “Fifi.” I’m a mom to two active girls, an architect, and an educator.  As a mom, I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities for my girls to build self-esteem, independence, and critical thinking skills.  As an educator with a PhD in architectural history and theory, I recognized that Design Thinking was being used outside of professional design practice to help resolve issues in multiple industries, including business and societal sectors.  Design Thinking is a non-linear, strategy-based process for problem solving that tackles issues through empathy and iterative hands-on making. It was developed by Stanford University’s “d” school for people in business, higher education, the public sector, and K–12 education as a process to create real change. As an architect, I practiced this methodology as a direct extension of my traditional university architecture school curriculum and decided to scale that learning experience for a younger audience.

Working with kids on big problems has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, and I am energized by the ideas, dynamism, and joy that kids bring to wicked problems. I’m looking forward to another year of amazing kids who tackle wicked problems!


Phyllis Henderson

Recommended reading from Alt Ed Austin

Books_title-image.jpg


If you’re like me, you look forward to summer as a relaxing time when you’ll catch up on the reading that’s been piling up on your nightstand, in your brain, on your device, or somewhere in cyberspace. Then reality sets in. Maybe you’ll finish it before the end of July and declare victory. More likely, you’ll tackle the first book or two and get distracted somewhere along the way. Or perhaps you’ll skip the list altogether in favor of shorter magazine articles, movies, games, or outdoor diversions during your precious free time. No judgment here; they’re all worthy pursuits!

So, with August winding down and the new school year and less laid-back schedules looming, I won’t burden you with more “must-reads” to add to your “must-do” list. Instead, I’ll just briefly let you know about a few education-related books I’ve read since spring that I think you’d find both enjoyable and useful.

 

What School Could Be:
Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America


by Ted Dintersmith


Ted Dintersmith is best known in education circles as producer of the excellent 2015 documentary Most Likely to Succeed and co-author, with Tony Wagner, of the book of the same title. His follow-up book, published this year, grew out of a full year spent traveling to all 50 states, visiting hundreds of schools (public, charter, traditional private, and alternative), and talking to countless students, educators, administrators, parents, and policymakers about innovative ideas they’ve put into practice in all kinds of learning environments.

Dintersmith is a highly successful venture capitalist, but unlike many of his colleagues in the business and tech world who have jumped into the education reform movement in recent years, he does not demonize teachers or focus on tinkering with new forms of standardized testing. He is less interested in talking about all the things that are wrong with conventional education (though he’s not shy about doing that too when pressed for his opinions) than in sharing and spreading the potentially revolutionary practices he’s seen happening, often hidden and unsung, at local levels around the country.

I had the good fortune to meet with Dintersmith (or Ted, as he prefers to be called by everyone) this past spring when he came to Austin for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed and to talk about his book with local education leaders. I found his knowledge to be vast and detailed; his thoughts on the kinds of education today’s learners need are largely aligned with my own. As you’ll notice if you read What School Could Be, Ted’s enthusiasm is contagious. I imagine you’ll come away from the book as inspired and energized to make change as I did.

 

Mighty Writing:
College Application Essay Guide


by Laurie Filipelli
in collaboration with Irena Smith


This is a long-overdue public recommendation. For more than a year now, I’ve been privately urging parents of high school juniors and rising seniors to give their kids Laurie Filipelli’s guide to writing effective personal essays for college applications. I’m happy to relay that my own son, who’s heading off to his first year of college at the end of the month, found the advice and exercises in Mighty Writing to be fun, accessible, and just the stimuli he needed to think deeply—and eventually write creatively—about his own experiences, values, and aspirations for a very specific audience: college admissions committees. When Sam was ready to start writing his official submissions last fall, he drew on the lists and vignettes he had composed during the summer while working his way through the guidebook.

For unconventionally schooled students like Sam, those required and optional essays often take on an even larger importance in the college admissions review, helping admissions officers form both a more expansive and a more specific understanding of who the students are and what they might add to the university community. Admissions staff at several colleges that awarded Sam substantial merit scholarships cited his unusual essays as helping his overall application really stand out from the stacks of more formulaic ones.

Austin-based author Laurie Filipelli is an essay writing coach, a former Waldorf high school English teacher, a social justice activist, and an award-winning poet. She’s been busy since publishing Mighty Writing in 2017; in fact, you can meet her and experience her way with words firsthand at the upcoming book launch of her latest poetry collection, Girl Paper Stone.

 


How to Raise an Adult:
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success


by Julie-Lythcott-Haims


Some friendly advice from a me as a parent and education professional: Read, as soon as you can, either of these two books, or both. The authors take somewhat different approaches to the same general ideas: that children of all ages, but particularly teens, need WAY more independence and agency than our generation of parents has been conditioned to give them; and that we need to do everything we can to lessen the pressures in their lives, especially academic ones. Our kids’ mental and physical health and happiness depend on it. Both books include helpful, practical suggestions for how parents (and educators, too) can do just that.


Finally, if you’re interested in exploring more great books in the alternative education realm, check out the Alt Ed Library on this site. We’ve added lots of new titles since we unveiled it a year ago, and we’re always open to suggestions! Also consider joining the Smart Schooling Book Group, facilitated by Antonio Buehler, which meets once a month at Laura’s Library in West Austin. This month, it just so happens that the group will be discussing How to Raise an Adult.

Happy reading!


Teri Sperry
Founder, Alt Ed Austin