Emmanuel Schanzer of Bootstrap Talks to Education-Portal.com

Mar 30, 2011

Bootstrap is an innovative middle school program designed to teach important algebraic concepts. This isn't your typical classroom curriculum, however. Instead, Bootstrap gives students the opportunity to use their numbers know-how to create video games.

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By Douglas Fehlen

Emmanuel Schanzer Bootstrap algebra instruction curriculum math video games technology teaching classroom student interest

Education-Portal.com: How did you come up with the idea of Bootstrap? What need did you intend for the program to fill?

Emmanuel Schanzer: Bootstrap was designed to teach algebra by having students familiarize themselves with algebraic concepts in the context of programming their own video games.

I started out as a computer scientist at Microsoft after getting my bachelor's degree, but I switched to education soon after. As a high school teacher, I found that my students were really struggling with algebraic functions: They never saw functions as 'objects' that could be discussed and instead just focused on the steps needed to solve one problem or another. When I introduced two-argument functions, like 'f(u, v)=…', they totally flipped out - even though they'd been using functions like addition since they were in kindergarten! How did they not see the connection?

I thought back to my programming days, when all day long I was designing, writing and testing functions. Maybe the 'function' idea would be more concrete if I taught them how to program? I looked at some of the popular youth-focused languages, but didn't see the algebra connection I was looking for. In programming, terms like 'variable' and 'function' have their own meanings, which are often quite different from what you see in a math class! A lot of these languages were developed to teach programming, with the math connection sort of bolted on as an afterthought.

Bootstrap was created specifically to teach algebra, and it uses a language that is truly algebraic. That language, coupled with a carefully designed curriculum, teacher-friendly software and an engaging final project make up the Bootstrap package. Of course, I couldn't have done this without an incredible team of collaborators! Enormous credit goes to Shriram Krishnamurthi, Kathi Fisler, Danny Yoo, Matthias Felleisen and the entire PLT group for developing the language and software, setting up partnerships, spreading the word and getting us funding. We also had the good fortune to hire Vicki Crosson this year, who is doing an incredible job supporting teachers across the Northeast.

E-P: Bootstrap is a standards-based curriculum that is informed by research in cognitive development. Can you explain how the curriculum was developed?

ES: I started out by doing my homework, looking at state standards for algebra and also at some of the cognitive science research around why algebra is so difficult for students. Once I defined the problem space, I looked at what was available to me in the world of programming and chose an engaging final project that would touch on the standards and address the conceptual barriers.

Vicki and I work closely with volunteer teachers around the country, as well as some full-time teachers who have adopted Bootstrap for their classes. We always encourage teachers to modify the curriculum to fit their needs - just as long as they write back to tell us what worked and what didn't! If we hear that a change has gone over well, and it doesn't alter the underlying learning objective, we test it out and see how it goes in a few classes. If the general feedback is good, we roll it out to the public.

E-P: Bootstrap has partnerships with many after-school programs. How have these relationships been developed?

ES: I started writing the curriculum while working with a program called Citizen Schools and they became our first after-school partner. Since then, we have reached out to programs like After-School All-Stars, Higher Achievement and Providence After School Alliance (PASA). Everyone recognizes the need for STEM Education, but there's always a tension when you bring in new material: People want to know if what you're doing will help students during the school day as well! The fact that every one of our lessons can be directly connected to a state standard gives us a compelling story.

E-P: Bootstrap programs are currently in place within the Boston, Austin, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco metropolitan areas, as well as in the states of Utah and Rhode Island. How were these locales chosen?

ES: We give all of our materials and software away on our website, and occasionally I hear from teachers who have used it with their students in all sorts of places. The specific locations we list on our website are areas where we offer more direct support in the form of weekly conference calls, training and observation, etc. Those sites are chosen based on three factors: (1) presence of an after-school program, (2) nearby universities and (3) nearby tech companies.

All of our after-school volunteers are either college students or professional engineers, so it's important to expand into areas with a good source of both students and teachers!

E-P: Can educators in other places adopt the program in their settings? What kind of materials and support does Bootstrap provide?

Bootstrap was designed to be flexible. Some teachers use it in their math classes at the end of the year, while others sprinkle it in as a Friday activity with their classes. Various after-school programs offer it one day a week for 90 minutes, twice a week for an hour each day, or every day over a few weeks. It's even been used as a one-week summer program, with students working through the curriculum for six hours a day.

All of our materials can be found online, and the software lives on the Web, so you don't need to download and install anything! For teachers who would like more support, they can contact us directly and set up opportunities to get trained, sign up for weekly conference calls and more.

E-P: Bootstrap is powered by volunteers. Can you explain how computer science talent finds you? Are there private companies that help Bootstrap to be successful?

ES: We have connected hundreds of middle schoolers across the country to nearly 200 college students and engineers. Our teachers are software engineers from Google, Facebook, Apple, IBM, Thomson Reuters and more. They are students from Brown, Northeastern, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Brigham Young, Stanford, Northwestern and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

There is a widespread belief that computer scientists are asocial dorks who fear children almost as much as they fear sunlight. That's nonsense! In our experience, these folks tend to be the most interested in sharing their knowledge, working with young people and volunteering their time. Many universities have some form of community service program set up already, but no role in these programs for students to use their computing skills. Bootstrap gives them a chance to make a difference in students' lives using the skills they have learned. Most tech companies are also aware of the need for good computer science education and we have received generous financial support from Google and Microsoft.

E-P: What's next for Bootstrap? Do you have plans to either expand the scope of the program or scale the existing curriculum to serve other areas?

ES: We plan to grow both horizontally (reaching more students in more regions) and vertically (this semester we piloted a Bootstrap 2 class, for graduates of Bootstrap). Recent grants from both Google and the National Science Foundation will allow us to do both, and conduct a formal evaluation of learning gains in algebra. We hope to expand into Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado by next spring.

E-P: What do kids say about Bootstrap? Do you have a favorite story about how Bootstrap is making a difference in the lives of youth?

ES: I'm always blown away by how confident and excited the students are when they are showing off their video games at the end of the course. Because honestly, the video games are pretty lame by modern standards! The graphics look like something out of the early 1980s, the animation is primitive and the games are simple. Yet the students who created them are brimming with pride and will happily grab an adult and walk them through their code.

It's easy to get kids excited about a game that looks like something off of a console, or a game that is fun to play. It's quite another thing to get kids excited about the process of building a game, or about the code they wrote to make something happen. Teachers everywhere know that students are most proud of the things they feel ownership of - the things they have built themselves and that they truly understand. To me, the best indication that kids love what they've learned is the fact that they can't wait to tell you all about a game that their friends wouldn't bother playing. When their friends ask them why their game isn't 3-D, I tend to hear responses like, 'Oh, I could've made it 3-D, but I didn't have enough time to learn all the math.' Talk about a direct connection between advanced math and the real world! Bootstrap students graduate having done real software engineering, using a real language that you will find in many companies and college classes.

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