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Free Game Design Curriculum Invades Math Classes

A long-tested curriculum for middle schoolers that blends algebra and geometry concepts with the programming of games is getting a new boost. Bootstrap, which has been around for about six years, is teaming up with and the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC) to help educators learn how to teach students algebraic and geometric concepts with computer programming.

The middle school curriculum, developed by Bootstrap, is free and aligns with the Common Core math standards. The organization also offers paid professional development workshops at locations around the country.

Bootstrap started as a 10-week after-school program. It was created by Emmanuel Schanzer, a former computer programmer turned math teacher and now a Ph.D. student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Kathi Fisler, professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; and Shriram Krishnamurthi, professor of computer science at Brown University.

"The whole curriculum is a sequence of steps that get you to the point where you have a working game at the end," Krishnamurthi said. "Once we tell [students] they're going to make their own game, the motivation is done. We don't have to say any more."

The lessons use WeScheme, a cloud-based integrated development environment that requires no downloading or installation but does require a Gmail account. For teachers who want to run software locally, the lessons also work with DrRacket, an open source graphical programming environment that runs on Windows, OS X, and Unix/Linux.

Now the team has begun transitioning Bootstrap to become an in-school program, which is where and CSNYC come in. Both are non-profit organizations that promote adding computer science classes to schools starting in early grades. Code, which also offers free curriculum to introduce students to coding and related topics, will be using Bootstrap as its official middle school curriculum. Both organizations will also be pushing the use of lessons within the schools and districts where they have a presence.

"Research has found that kids change the way they talk about math right around this age," Krishnamurthi said. "They go from saying, 'Math is hard,' to saying, 'I can't do math.' And that's the point where kids make the decision to drop out of algebra. When they do, they've actually made a career decision without even knowing it, because there's nothing you can do in a STEM field without algebra. We'd like to get to them before they make that decision to drop out, so they" can keep their options open.

They also pick up some basics of the coding process too, he added. "I do code reviews with my college students," Krishnamurthi said. "They are one of the most challenging experiences a college student can have. It's a hard-core professional skill. We teach it to middle schoolers as a natural part of our curricular design."

Currently, a few schools — such as Pembroke Community Middle School in Massachusetts — are already using the materials. Teacher Adam Newall has introduced it to his seventh and eighth grade math classes. "The idea of making a video game is the allure," he said. "But it opens [students] to the idea that they can learn math, and it's not something that's meant to torture people. They learn that math is something that is real and relevant and that they can use it."

To create their games, students choose a main character, a goal for that character to reach and a danger to avoid. Then they learn a programming language to put it all in motion. And that's where algebra comes in. As an example, to get to the goal, the character has to get past the obstacle, which means their relative positions need to be plotted on a Cartesian grid.

"To do that, we're going to need to know the Pythagorean theorem," Newall noted. "To understand the Pythagorean theorem we need to know square roots and squares. And [the students] will follow a lesson on how those things work in order to make it work in their game. They're so eager to own that."

At the end of the semester, Newall held a code review. "The superintendent came; parents came. Just the amount of celebration from kids making a one-screen, side scrolling video game was more than I had ever anticipated," he said.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.