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A Bootstrap for STEM

The Bootstrap logo.

Bootstrap is a curricular module for students ages 12-16, which teaches algebraic and geometric concepts through computer programming.

Credit: Bootstrap

Algebra, the bane of many middle and high schoolers, is a prerequisite for all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Algebra I is a requirement in most U.S. states to graduate high school, but students are flunking algebra at alarming rates. Considering the current and forecast labor shortage in STEM occupations (2.4 million unfilled STEM job openings by 2022), "anyone who cares about STEM should be terrified by the number of students failing algebra," warns Emmanuel Schanzer, program director for the innovative non-profit Bootstrap.

In the early 2000s, when he was teaching math in high school and middle school, Schanzer realized "algebra is a killer class and kids were falling apart." With his undergraduate background in computer science and education, he thought, "why not use programming as a way to teach algebra?" Inspired by the work of Seymour Papert who invented the Logo programming language, Schanzer was convinced that "by exploring the concrete notion of programming, people will understand functions."

Based on decades of work by a community of professors on Program by Design (PBD), Schanzer, along with Kathi Fisler of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Shriram Krishnamurthi of Brown University, as well as Bootstrap regional managers Emma Youndtsmith and Rosanna Sobota, developed the Bootstrap curriculum to help math teachers inspire middle and high school students to actively learn and understand algebraic concepts by programming video games, step by step. It starts with simple expressions, like drawing a circle; then it demonstrates how to turn the circles into textual code, followed by functions, and links the functions to create a simple animation. By incrementally adding features, students build their games. The curriculum is designed so that with each new feature, the students learn a specific mathematical concept (as well as learning how to write code, which creates lots of opportunity for their futures).

The idea teachers can use any computer programming to teach math is "bunk," says Schanzer; there is "depressingly little evidence to support such a broad claim," because many programming languages treat core concepts like "functions" and "variables" in ways that are incompatible with a math class. In such languages, variables are treated like buckets whose contents can change, he says; statements like "x = x+1" are common in Java or Python, but have no place in an algebra classroom.  

"Bootstrap is different," Schanzer says, "because we start by asking ‘what is the math we are trying to teach?’ Only then do we look at what parts of programming it can help teach it. There are programming languages that are based on solid mathematical foundations, and Bootstrap uses one such language, called Racket. It gives word problems that provide students with a practical scaffold." For example, to learn about and understand the Pythagorean theorem, a student can write a program in a video game to detect when a leprechaun is close enough to collide with a dragon.

Through its workshops, Bootstrap provides math teachers with the pedagogy, the curriculum, and software, all of which are aligned with state and Common Core math standards. Every year, more than 300 teachers learn how to use Bootstrap to teach their students algebra and geometry, and in the process also teach them programming. This year, Schanzer expects that number to total 400, and next year, Bootstrap may reach 500 teachers. "If even a small percentage of all working algebra teachers use Bootstrap, you’ve just tripled or quadrupled the number of people teaching programming."

In addition to turning math teachers on to simple computer programming to make algebra come alive, Schanzer says, "there are engineers from lots of companies who are excited by Bootstrap to teach youngsters the kind of programming they learned in college. They are eager to volunteer their time because there is an already existing road map for them to follow in these after-school programs."

Since its founding in 2005, Schanzer estimates Bootstrap has reached 12,000 to 13,000 students, including 7,500 alone this year. With virtually no advertising or marketing, the organization is growing solely through word of mouth. By 2022, he expects Bootstrap will have reached over 300,000 students—they could fill 13% of those forecast unfilled STEM jobs.

The Bootstrap:2 curriculum currently is in beta "to go from creative play to engineering rigor, using Bootstrap as the bridge," says Schanzer. In addition, the Bootstrap community is developing an advanced placement curriculum based on Bootstrap:2 that uses the same semantics, pedagogy, and styles to ensure "a smooth progression."

In the 20-school pilot for eighth- and ninth-graders currently in its second year with New York City, 90% of the teachers agreed to continue with Bootstrap. A peer-reviewed paper published by Schanzer, Fisler, Krishnamurthi, and Matthias Felleisen (who Schanzer called the "patriarch of the PBD group") found "in end-of-workshop surveys of 143 teachers (collected from June 2013 through August 2014), 101 indicated that they taught math. Ninety-five percent of these 101 teachers strongly agreed (72%) or agreed (23%) that Bootstrap was relevant to algebra. Ninety-three percent strongly agreed (74%) or agreed (19%) that Bootstrap was relevant to their own teaching." Currently, the team is finishing up a larger study and results should be available early next year.

At the beginning of the current U.S. school year in September, Bootstrap received a $1.5-million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to bring the Bootstrap curriculum to high school students, and to train another 600 teachers in how to use the curriculum.

A lean organization, Bootstrap has only five members, and two are part-time volunteers. Their vision is for Bootstrap to encourage "building communities of practice in each school district where teachers train each other." The organization’s active newsgroup furthers the mission of teachers helping teachers.

Schanzer’s long-term goal for Bootstrap is to "give everyone access to the experience of programming." He adds, "computer programming is often offered only as an elective or after-school activity, meaning there is self-selection, which is recreating the gender and color bias."

Tatjana Meerman is a freelance technology writer based in the Washington, D.C. area.


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