Posts Tagged STEM education

Teach Real Algebra Instead of Wasting Time with Fun Apps

Published by — “The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

Emmanuel Schanzer majored in Computer-Science at Cornell University.  With such a high-value degree, he knew he could sail into a lucrative, snazzy job.  But he was keenly aware that he was a C.S. hotshot (my word) because he’d entered college with good math skills already under his belt.  No one codes who doesn’t understand algebra — you know, the hard stuff that looks like a Slavic language with some numbers thrown in.  To get a lot more kids, especially ill-prepared urban kids, into the bright future that comes with computer science, someone had to build up their math first.

So later on, Schanzer would create Bootstrap’s curriculum.  Because — buyer beware! — most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

“When you hear, ‘This is so amazing!  These apps teach kids to program!’  That’s snake oil.  Every minute your students spend on empty engagement while they’re failing algebra, you’re assuring that they’re not going to college.  Studies show that the grade kids get in Algebra I is the most significant grade to predict future income.”

A Man With a Math Mission

In college Schanzer searched for a way to improve math instruction through real programming, and found Program by Design (PxB, about which I’ve been writing for the last 2 weeks).  While excellent, it’s pitched too high, assuming strong math skills that challenged urban students haven’t yet acquired.  He vowed to redesign it one day — after cashing in on his computer-science degree.

But his years working in the tech sector were no match for his passion.  Plan “B,” then.  With an education degree in hand, he started teaching his beloved algebra in urban schools.  But the programming tools available to his students were maddeningly off the mark.  “First, none of the popular K-12 computer languages/teaching tools had anything to do with math, which seemed insane to me.  They had things called “functions” and “variables,” but they didn’t behave at all like the functions and variables students see in their math classes.  How’s that supposed to help them?  Students were expected to entertain themselves by playing with the tools, but it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to learn.”

“The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

“The goal is to help kids get the computer to do something, because there is an intangible value in being in control.  It’s engaging, no question.  So in the last 5 years, all the sexy languages are drag-and-drop programs, like Scratch and Alice.  I have enormous respect for these tools, as long as they’re a first step towards PythonJava.  But by themselves, they are a terrific answer to just one question:  How do we make it seem easy to code?”

Those programs have built-in blocks of code, represented by icons that kids can manipulate.  But kids don’t interact with the code itself, never mind write it or program.

“Typing code is hard.  If you forget a semicolon, the program doesn’t work.  So the supposition has been that if they play with a tool, it will help them later.  But that’s not programming and it’s not algebra.  Classroom time is valuable.  If you’re spending 50 hours in the course of a year “coding” in block language, you’re stealing time from real learning.  Students get an “A” in high school and then go to college and find programming is something else entirely, and get totally turned off.”

Bootstrap Is Born

Like a good Millennial, Schanzer founded a start-up to solve the problem.  Bootstrap’s programming language behaves like the algebra students learn in class, reinforcing honest-to-God algebraic concepts.  Yes, Bootstrap teaches kids the basics of game building, but only by teaching the math that supports the code.

The materials are free and online, though professional development is available.  Every lesson is cross-walked with the Common Core, assuring teachers that their efforts will result in real learning.  A growing library provides homework assignments and warm-up activities.  Teachers can use each lesson’s script until they’re familiar with the program.  And a pre and post-test measures the learning.

“Teachers know if it’s not real math.  You have to do things the way teachers do it in a classroom.  Bootstrap enforces mathematical behavior — same vocabulary, steps, style as a math book.  This is a math class.”  The fun video on Bootstrap’s homepage shows kids loving the approach.

As luck would have it, Schanzer found himself Boston’s subway one morning and noticed a guy, a German, working with Program by Design.  Lo!, the man was none other than Matthias Felliesen, creator of PxD.  With that chance meeting, Schnazer secured allies in his efforts to get math to urban kids.  Bootstrap started to take off.

And if a Bootstrap student starts to soar, a teacher can point the budding computer-scientist to PxD for more challenge, and a pipeline to college.

Schanzer is fulfilling his college-born dream to propel bunches of kids into bright futures at places like Cornell.  Absolutely, engagement is important.  But the key all along has been to shore up math itself.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street

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Computer Science is Critical Thinking on Steroids

Published by — The “modeling” required by computer science is a widely transferable skill.

Kathi Fisler has been teaching Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnical Institute for 13 years, a veritable aeon in this young field. “The world wide web came out when I started graduate school in 1991. There were no phones, and what laptops there were, especially in schools, were “paperweights.” Who knew what to do with them?

All told, the field of Computer Science (C.S.) is only 60 years old. Math, Literacy, Science and History have been developing for millennia. And back in the 1990s, only people going into the field studied computing. But then the electronics market exploded as devices got smaller, faster, better, and ubiquitous.

She muses, “Now it’s a totally different world. But while the C.S. community is trying to get a handle on what broad education might prepare students for the digital world, there’s no single definition of what Computer Science even is. With so many interpretations, some colleges say no, we won’t give you credit for taking the computer-science AP course. So how do you make a standard test so colleges know what to expect, without common expectations?”

Well, first and most importantly, understand the giant distinction between coding and programming. Media efforts are trying to attract kids, especially girls, to coding. But coding is to programming what spelling and grammar are to writing — structurally essential, but not the point. They’re tools to make it work. A whole lot of thinking and designing needs to take place first.

Fisler and her colleagues call the design work “modeling.”

In the 1990s Fisler’s husband, also a computer scientist, was a grad student at Rice University, working with Matthias Felliesen’s team just as they began to invent what became Program by Design (PxD, discussed in last week’s column). PxD was an effort to undo the damage done by well-meaning high schools that taught students to code, in whatever computer language, as if learning grammar and spelling would somehow add up to real writing in the end. It was, if you will, bass ackwards.

Since Fisler was literally married to the work, the all-male team asked her to join them. They wanted a maximally diverse group of computer scientists, students, and K-12 teachers to develop an online, free high-school and early-college curriculum. PxD delays the specific issues of coding to the latter stages of learning. Instead, it starts with helping students think through solving problems with data, in computer-science terms.

For the record, the leaders of that original team have stayed with PxD, far flung though they all are; Felleisen is now at Northeastern University.

Let’s say you’re going to write a program.

Fisler says, “The first question is: What is this rich set of data I’m trying to process? What PxD does is expose students to increasingly rich kinds of data and let the programs proceed from there. Let’s start with simple data, like a shopping list.”

Okay, so what do you want to do with the data? Or as Fisler would say, “How do you want to organize the data narrative?” A super-simple program might sort the list alphabetically. A database might know where each item is, to the program uses the list to map an efficient route through the grocery store. Perhaps you’re sophisticated and want to track your lists, so your program asks if you meant to pick up coffee, since it wasn’t on your list.

The PxD curriculum keeps upping the complexity of the data sets, moving on, say, to family trees. Adding a person to a party list is easier than adding a person to a family tree, because family members come with other connections. What the data means to you and what you want to do with it informs the model you develop.

Implementation is next. How am I going to get this done? Once you figure that out, you have your model, a plan that includes the purpose, the data and the strategy for accomplishing the purpose.

With the model in hand, it’s finally time to concentrate on the code — the grammar, syntax, spelling — that will make the program itself work.

Fisler makes an analogy to my writing. First, I outline extensively so I’m clear what point I’m trying to make, what evidence I’m using, and how I will structure the argument. This “modeling” is the hardest and most time-consuming part. When I’m ready to code, I do it in English, in a sloppy but concrete first draft. Lastly, I polish, call it “debug,” so my little verbal machine works, which is to say, does what I want it to.

In ed-speak, this is critical thinking on steroids.

Because modeling has also been around for millennia. Computer science gives a name to the time-honored sequence of thinking, designing and writing, independent of any specific computer language. It’s the “broad education (that) might prepare students for the digital world” — the ultimate transferable skill. And the skills involved in modeling are much more useful, intriguing and fun, for all academic disciplines, than learning strict compliance with the rules. For that reason, along with so many others, students as young a 6th grade should be learning computer science, using Fisler and PxD’s approach.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Math-Haters Love Crunching Numbers for Business Plans

Published by — For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  A balance is best.

Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College.  Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats.  With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.

To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged.  But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement.  Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma.  The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”

While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help.  The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive.  An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.

Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here.  The program is brilliantly designed.  Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea.  To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan.  I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.

The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation.  Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides.  They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever.  The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.  (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.)  Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.

Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves.  Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills.  Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”  Bingo.  This should have happened long ago.

Why can’t school be like this all the time?

Bonas was blunt.  “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it.  We’re not able to think outside the box.”  Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers.  She says, “It’s a manufacturing process.  You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done.  You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.”  She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say.  Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives.  Making a profit is something they can care about.”

For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care.  Learning can’t be either/or.  Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need.  Both/and.  Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants.  As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.”  Of course details matter.  Dream all you want, but the math has to work.  Skills and projects need a healthy balance.

We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful.  Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.”  Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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At Last! A Computer Science Course for All Kids

Published by — Democratize the skills that are now the gateway into the 21st century economy.

The classroom reverberates with a lot of boom, bang, thwring, crash!  When the door opens, kids seem to be watching a big-screen video game.  Their 8th-grade computer-science teacher, Patrick Culliname, slips out, quickly shutting the door against the noise.

His students are a little fried from completing their final projects using HTML and javascript — common fare at the Advanced Academy of Math and Science (AMSA).  So Culliname is taking it easy with a movie, TRON, that re-enforces prior knowledge.

Oh, c’mon, “re-enforces prior knowledge” with a video-game war movie?  Lincoln, maybe.  October Sky, if you want to stay sciencey, but TRON?

Actually a real-life computer geek wrote the 1982′s TRON, which features characters using real computer terms instead of sci-fi babble. The story’s hero is broken down into a data stream so he can enter a computer to chase and defeat a nefarious software pirate.  The movie memorably reiterates the terms, even as kids scoff at the antiquated special-effects.

And if not TRON, what?  The few schools that do teach computer science (CS) cobble together free software, relevant books and movies, to create curricula the way birds build nests — with any sturdy materials they can find.

For the record, Russia, India and Israel, among other countries, already have CS across the grades in their schools.  Talk about leaving U.S. children behind!

Insane though it sounds, no nationally-vetted introductory course existed until now.  While only published in 2010, Exploring Computer Science (ECS) is going viral.

I asked the curriculum’s co-author, Gail Chapman, what took American schools so long.  She said:  “There are plenty of places that offer resources — as if teachers have time to research how to integrate CS into their courses.  Our group spent years probing and choosing certain materials.  Nothing in our curriculum is original, but the sequence and strategy was designed to capture the interest of girls and minorities.”

Originally funded by the National Science Foundation — who else? — ECS grew out of the work of the Computer Science Equity Alliance (CSEA), a group determined to democratize the skills that are now the gateway into the 21st century economy.  (I told their story last week.)

AMSA’s Kelly Powers is a CSEA chapter head for the state of Massachusetts.  Even though her own school already has CS for grades 6-11, she too is passionate about closing the stark equity gap for young people under-represented in the field of computer science.

Chapman experimented extensively with using materials — like TRON — to teach in low-income Los Angeles schools.  “Because kids are on devices all the time, we assume they know what computer science is.  They don’t.”

And computers have a way of making people feel stupid, a super turn-off.

“We got together a group from colleges and high schools to identify the right topics.  No one had ever done anything like this.  We had input and ideas, but we were starting from scratch.”  Building that bird’s nest.

So ECS begins hands off the keyboard, just talking.  “We ask what kind of knowledge kids bring to the table.  Every kid brings something.  We don’t assume any prior knowledge of computer science.  But we can talk about how computers get used in a variety of settings.  About privacy and problem-solving skills.”

I notice the curriculum, which is up online in its entirety, spends a full two weeks exploring “What is intelligence?”  Good question.  Then, with hands on the keyboard, the course goes on to such topics as algorithms and abstraction, and the connections between math and CS.

Chapman says, “Really, there’s nothing else out there you can just pick up.  The online curriculum does have everything, including daily, 55-minute lesson plans, designed for traditional high schools.  Although, we think the course is more effective when teachers also have the professional development we offer.”

So why isn’t CS in every secondary school?

Chapman sighs and concedes that the biggest remaining problem is determining what a computer-science course could displace.  English?  History?  Afterschool sports and clubs?  It’s a hard question that must be answered.  AMSA solves the problem with a weird schedule and a longer day, typical of charter schools.

The NSF hopes every high school will teach this course or some other like it so all kids are exposed to the subject.  They believe that computer science should count as a science credit or combined math and science.

Currently the course is taught in the cities of L.A., Santa Clara, and Washington DC, and in Utah, Oregon, and Maryland.

And coming soon, Massachusetts.  At a big business-tech meeting, Kelly Powers had the opportunity to press Governor Deval Patrick to commit to making computer science a high school graduation requirement.

With little hesitation, he said yes.

Good answer.  Let’s see if and how it plays out in MA.

The Exploratory course is not the be-all, end-all, but it’s a concrete and long-overdue start.  Gail Chapman welcomes questions and would love to share the work.  Contact her at:

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Schools Making Minorities into the Serfs of the Information Age

Published by — “Education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when education itself is also democratic.”

“Education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when education itself is also democratic.”

– John Dewey, in 1916, Democracy and Education.

“I think minorities are… are scared, you know, to jump into the (computer-science) future because what it looks like is only Caucasians should be in that industry.”

– Nia, an African-American student in a Los Angeles high school.

During the late 1990′s, Dr. Jane Margolis, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, studied why so few women were entering computer science and related fields.  Using a feminist perspective, she unearthed disincentives for women to get under the hood of a computer.  She published her results in the 1999 book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women and Computing.

But in the course of her studies, the equally remarkable absence of certain minorities did not escape her notice.

Actually, to this day, students taking computer science are overwhelmingly White and Asian males.  Hmmmm.

In 2000, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was also worried about why Latino and African-American students were so miserably represented in computer science classes.

More generally, the NSF was super-concerned about students fleeing the field as a result of the bust.  Too few students were in the pipeline before the bust.  They knew that the “tech crash” meant only a temporary decline in the ability of skate-boarding coders to become overnight gagillionaires.  Venture capital went dry, but the need for computer scientists was still ballooning.

So the NSF funded Margolis’ new project:  “Out of the Loop:  Why are so Few Underrepresented High School Students Learning Computer Science?”

She assembled a team of social scientists based in Los Angeles.  They spent three years studying three big, overcrowded, public high schools, following and interviewing 185 students in total, with the blessing and cooperation of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD).

One school was predominantly low-income Latino, and another low-income Black.  The third was also predominantly low-income and minority, but in a swanky neighborhood full of Tinseltown mansions.  Poor kids were bused in from elsewhere.

Studying participation in K-12 computer science (CS) is totally easy because there’s only one course:  Advanced Placement Computer Science (APCS).  Yes, rare schools have created a CS curricula of their own, but they’re all one-offs, not replicated, not nationally recognized.  The APCS course is offered towards the end of high school, to the sort of smarties who take AP, college-level classes.  Only hot-shot juniors and seniors have a prayer of learning a byte of computer science before college.

One of the three L.A. schools had an APCS program with anemic enrollment.  Another had none.  The third — guess which? — had a robust APCS program, mainly filled with students who did live in the mansions but who, for whatever reason, weren’t going to private schools.

The problem wasn’t a lack of computer equipment.  Nationally, the quantity and quality of computers in low-income public schools has vastly improved.  But better equipment does not teach computational skills, nor can it raise low expectations.  Mostly it serves computer “literacy,” helping kids practice word-processing, PowerPoint and spreadsheets.

Computer “science” is the ability to tell a computer what you want it to do and how to do it, in computer language.

Computing is the key to opportunity in the 21st century.  Certain students are sailing into that future — those that Nia the high school student mentioned.  The others are becoming what math Professor Robert Moses calls the “designated serfs of the information age.”

We have yet another ugly racial divide.

Margolis’ team documented a chasm of inequality.  So they formed a new group, the Computer Science Equity Alliance (CSEA), whose mission was to increase minority participation in APCS in the L.A. schools.

For three years, they ran summer institutes for teachers, collected an army of tutors to prep kids for APCS, and conducted Saturday academies.  They got terrific results — quadrupling the number of Latinos and doubling the number of Blacks taking APCS.  By 2007, 8 percent of all California females who took the APCS exam came from L.A, thanks to them.

In 2008, they captured the story of this gargantuan effort in Stuck in the Shallow End — Education, Race and Computing.

But they realized that  APCS, coming at the end of high school, is way too late to nudge more kids into computer science.  Fortunately, after years of working directly with students, CSEA had picked up tons of tricks to intrigue and engage novices in the fun of computational thinking.  So they shifted their attention to assembling these newfound techniques into a 9th-grade course that would introduce and acclimate students to the subject.  A 9th-grade introductory course would at least prepared students to take APCS later on, if they want.  And computer science burnishes any college application, giving these kids a leg up.

And not a moment too soon.  We don’t need more workplace ghettos for people with brown skin and stunted educations.

So next week we’ll talk to a co-author of the 2010 final product of CSEA’s efforts, theExploring Computer Science course.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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We’ll Never Achieve STEM Goals Without Computer Science

Published by —  “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” — Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

Back in the day, the high-tech innovation that rocked my world was a self-correcting typewriter.  Mere keystrokes replaced the black-ink ribbon with a white-out tape so I could erase mistakes by typing.  Absolute bliss for someone living a writing-intensive life.

Today, super-sophisticated computers and electronics are everywhere.  Literally.  Devices are in everyone’s hands (to an annoying extent), implanted in people’s bodies, and managing all manner of data-heavy work like traffic, government databases, massive communications systems, and more.

Electronic technology has become the lifeblood of all developed economies.  Even nature-bound work — landscape gardeners, wedding florists and farmers — use computers for billing, research, ordering supplies, advertising their wares.

Ubiquitous.  Critical to everyone’s daily life.

So you would think that America’s K-12 education system would be frantically preparing students for all manner of computer skills, from software engineers to hardware experts.  But how many schools do you know that routinely offer computer science in their curriculum, to most students?

For years now, the business community has been pushing educators to get more students into STEM fields — without great success.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  The remarkable dearth of qualified employees in these areas means that even during the recent recession, thousands of jobs went begging for lack of trained applicants.

But in last December’s presentation to the Massachusetts’ Governor’s STEM Council, an industry group, the MASS Tech Hub, made the point that the foundational problem is the lack of computer science.  “Computing is both the biggest job sector of STEM today andhas the largest future growth expectations.  ..  Tech isn’t just an industry or a job function, it’s part of nearly every aspect of our economy.”  No STEM job gets done without computer science.

Massachusetts, btw, has perhaps the best trained technology workforce in the country.  Its tech sector produces nearly 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Product.  But they are scrambling for workers.

Between 2010-2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the current 900,000 software engineering jobs to grow by 30 percent.  The 300,000 computer and information systems managerial jobs will grow 18 percent.  Database administrators, 31 percent.  And that’s not even counting the civil engineers or biochemists and biophysicisists.

Hey, it’s not even considering the Information Technology (IT) person that virtually every organization now needs on staff or available for hire.

Ask any business who needs software engineers if they can find workers.  Mighty slim pickings.  Anecdotally, my data pals report that their new hires are largely self-taught.  Schools are very little help with this problem.

So an industry group has resorted to selling computer science via celebrity gods.  Check out the aptly-named video What Most Schools Don’t Teach on  Super-celebrities like Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a basketball and a rap star talk about feeling like superstars when they first could make miracles happen on their computer screen.  Anyone, they assert, can read, do math, and program.  Coding is not the exclusive province of nerds and geniuses.  And even if you don’t enter a STEM field, the skills will support any field you choose.

Oh, and the not-so-subtle underlying message is that you too can be obscenely wealthy, famous, and work in cool places with live bands, pools and free lunch.

It quotes the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:  “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”

Now that I agree with.

So if computer science is a necessary skill, right up there with reading and writing, why isn’t it pervasive in schools?

For the most comprehensive answer, see Running on Empty — The Failure to Teach K–12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.  It says, for example, that even as “we move toward an ever-more computing-intensive, … most states treat high school computer science courses as simply an elective and not part of a student’s core education.”

Our system is greatly hampered by the fact that “government policies underpinning the K–12 education system are deeply confused, conflicted, or inadequate to teach engaging computer science as an academic subject.”

Only 9 states allow computer science to count towards math or science requirements.

If anything, since NCLB’s demand that all kids perform proficiently, according to state standards, computer science has gotten increasingly pushed out of the school day, at best into elective courses — that displace music and art — or after-school clubs.

There’s no room for computer science in the conventional 6, 7-period secondary-school day, with its curriculum rooted in the 19th century.

Although, Russia, India and Israel, among others, found ways of embedding it in their schools, K-12.

America’s reputation as the nation of innovators is receding.  The K-12 system needs a re-boot, and not just more tinkering around the edges.

Thoughts on a partial solution next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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The Man Who Made Algebra Child’s Play

Published by — Dr. Henry Borenson wants kids not just to know algebra, but to like it.

Dr. Henry Borenson began his career as a math teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.  Like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant uses an exam to cream the best public-school students.  For those smartie pantses, algebra was a breeze.  Borenson’s biggest problem was the constant need to invent intriguing work to challenge his kids.

Then he took a job as Math Supervisor in another state.  As such, he descended from the lofty reaches of gifted-and-talented programs and became responsible for teaching, well, the rest of us.  Like so many young students now as well as back in my day, I developed a profound algebra-aversion.  It made me feel so hopelessly inept that I narrowed my college search to those that would not make me take math.

Borenson explains, “The way algebra was traditionally taught involved memorization without understanding.”  Well, not understanding makes anyone feel stupid and totally turned off.  No wonder many kids don’t like math.

Patricia Scales, the principal of the school I visited for last week’s column on this subject, explained, “We hurry kids along when we really need to slow down and teach process and understanding.  Only by getting solid foundations of a skill can they get to the next level, which takes time.  But if you have them do it by rote, they don’t understand and they’re not thinking.”

Especially with the testing insanity of the last decade or so, teachers want to help their students arrive at correct answers absolutely asap.  So math instruction often regresses to teaching rules — algorithms, formulae, tricks, rote.  Which is boring.

Of course, many math teachers don’t themselves have deep understanding that they can pass on with confidence.  They too mainly learned the rules.

Borenson says, “The focus of my entire career has been on the teaching of math.  Already 25 years ago, I was looking to make algebra more visual to support understanding.  I wanted to demystify the meaning of equations by representing them physically.”

His first effort was a crude system of letters and pictures designed to help a disengaged 8th-grade class.  “These visualizations allowed the weakest student in the class to solve advanced mathematics problem.  To her it was instantly obvious.  Clearly algebra needed to be more concrete so kids could get used to it and like it.”

That early work evolved into what became his life’s brainchild:  Hands-on Equations.  Designed for students grades 3 – 8, and struggling high-school students, the program has kids build equations, literally, with chess-like pawns representing the variables and numbered cubes.  (A child demonstrates how to do it here.)

Borenson says, “Pawns and cubes are much friendlier than x and y.  Kids can see that you can’t combine a constant (number) and x.  Each lesson introduces only one more concept, and the sequence of lessons provides building blocks for young learners.  Hands-on Equations is designed to give kids a head start before taking a regular algebra class.”

He adds, “When a kid is working on a video game, they don’t ask, when am I going to use this skill?  The reason they always ask what algebra is good for is because it’s boring.  They don’t understand what they’re doing, and they’re not successful.  Video games require strategic thinking; Hands-on Equations does the same.”

Helping kids feel confident about their ability to think through a problem sets them up with good attitudes.

Hands-on Equations is not new, but it’s still too much under the radar.  Over the years, tons of research has supported the program’s success with inner city kids, English language learners, special needs students, indeed, all kids.  In video testimonials, math teachers and researchers both report the same experience I had at Patricia Scales’ school, watching light bulbs popping over the kids heads.

Hands-on Equations was voted the #2 most downloaded math program for the i-pad.  Borenson argues that no other actually teaches algebra.  “In most math apps, the child knows he’s right because the program says ‘Terrific!’ or ‘Good Job!’ or something. Scientific American gave one (program) a top rating that can’t teach algebra because there is no way for a child to check his answer.  That’s enabling.  The fancy graphics are not teaching a kid to solve the problem on his own.”

The program is gamelike, but without points, winning or racing.  Kids learn math rules as “legal moves,” in the language of video games.

Borenson’s colleagues offer professional development for the use of the program.  But honestly, he and the teachers I met believe that the manual supplied with the kits provides all a motivated teacher needs to know.  The kits themselves are relatively inexpensive, and Borenson is negotiable when schools are seriously strapped.  A book of word problems supplements each lesson, to keep the more advanced kids challenged.

It’s rare for me to laud a marketed product.  But Hands-on Equations certainly would have cleared up my problems with algebra, perhaps opening up my college search.

Borenson says, “The point is to get kids used to algebra so they like it.  It’s important that they develop positive attitudes towards math.”

Surely improved attitudes would work wonders on kids’ anemic math achievement.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science

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During their sophomore year, biology students at William M. Davies Career & Technical Center fan out in teams to swab things all over the school.

They’re on a quest to address this question:  Since schools are breeding grounds for disease, exactly where would you be most likely to find pathogens, the infectious agents also known as germs?

Translation to teen-speak:  What is the grossest thing at school?

Welcome to “inquiry science.”  Yes, “inquiry” is just asking good questions, which is what scientists do anyway, right?  But K-12 science has far too often depended on textbooks that pile on facts, formulae and procedures.

Adam Flynn was Chair of Davies’ Science Department during the years of changes that recently yielded a fat bump in the school’s test scores.  He says, “When I was in school, they’d hand you a procedure.  First you do this, then that.  A trained ape can follow a procedure.  It’s not engaging.”

Instead, “inquiry science” poses a question, and turns the kids loose to figure out how they’re going to find ways to arrive at credible answers.  And when they have data results, how they’ll synthesize the information and present their findings.  Very different animal.

Teaching and learning the habits of “inquiry” became more urgent in 2007 when the statewide science NECAP exam was introduced.  Each year’s test is roughly 60 percent multiple choice, but about 40 percent of the score depends on the students’ abilities to complete an inquiry task.  The test poses a problem, and expects students to hypothesize an answer, describe how they’ll get their data using the tools given to them, and formulate a conclusion.

The initial results statewide were not pretty.

At Davies, by far the weakest domain was inquiry.  “So we made inquiry the lens through which we teach all courses now.”  Flynn talks about the science department’s switch from textbook dependence to backwards design.  It took the form of three questions asked of each science teacher:

1.  What are the desired results?  What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?

2.  How will you assess your teaching so you’re sure the kids got it?

3.  And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what’s the lesson plan?

The faculty started the work by taking stock of what was already in place, conducting a bit of inquiry research of their own:  What standards did each teacher and each course address?  How often?  When addressed, were those standards formally assessed?

“We found we had lots that we were teaching and not assessing.  Again, in teacher prep, we didn’t focus on why you assess.  If it’s Friday, that’s just what you do.  And if the kids don’t pass, oh well, we’ve got to move on.  We realized we needed to become assessors and not activity planners.”

So whole chunks of the curriculum, including some beloved units and projects, were evicted to make room for assessable units that did support desired results.

“Kids are always asking why we need to learn this.  If I have to pause to answer, I’m not engaged.  Better to put it on them by asking why the universe looks the way it does and let them come up with, and own, their answers.”

Flynn asks his juniors:  “Where will the next earthquake strike?”  Some kids find the U.S. Geological Center or other online sources.  Some comb through the news.  They can collect their data however they like, but they have to find hard evidence to back up their prediction.  It’s weird to hope for a disaster, but if an earthquake does strike during that class, it speaks to the predictions.  Kids have a blast with how right some of their answers are.  The experience of having reasoned out a pretty good guess is educationally impressive to students.

Finding the grossest place in the school has similar appeal.

Flynn says, “It really doesn’t matter what the content is, as long as they’re using scientific thinking.  It engages them so much more.  Assignments like that help the kids to practice really good science skills.  And the way we have it designed, they have to do and show their work just like they do on the NECAP test.”

As a vocational school, it’s not uncommon for a majority of Davies’ students to enter the 9th grade reading only at a 6th-grade level.  Science tests are hugely dependent on reading and writing abilities, so for Davies’ students to jump 15 percentage points in a year is no small potatoes.

Flynn has since become Davies’ Supervisor of Academic Instruction.  Wonder why.

Okay, okay, what is the grossest thing at the school?  Answer:  the basketball.  That was a surprise.  Keyboards and mice come in second.  The toilet, a common hypothesis, is one of the cleanest places in school.  Why?  Because — and you knew this one already — it gets cleaned.  So that was a whole different kind of lesson in itself, prompting more inquiry and more interesting answers.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Algebra Can Be Taught as Basic Software Programming

Published by— Creative approaches to algebra — like using computer science and technology — can help improve math education outcomes.


Recently, in the New York Times opinion section, Professor Andrew Hacker asked, Is Algebra Necessary?

Surely he knew the educated, newspaper-reading public would revile him for such heresy.  He states obvious truths, however.  Algebra, and math requirements generally act as linebackers blocking “unqualified” kids from college altogether, and pushing large numbers of students who did manage to get in to drop out.  In high school and college, students fail math courses far more often than other subjects.  Hacker suggests colleges ease their requirements so mathematically-challenged “poets and philosophers” can thrive.

Naturally, the four zillion reader-comments passionately argue that algebra is necessary.  For good reasons.  Many howl that we’d be nuts to continue “dumbing down” the already-low bar that Americans set for most students.

But I applaud Hacker for sparking the conversation.  He’s right that math is a huge problem.   It begs creative solutions.

So let’s consider two complementary ideas.  One has a decent track record, and the another employs technology in a new way.

In the 1980s researchers provided hard data proving that requiring Algebra II blocked most minority and low-income students from any hope of college.  The College Boardresponded with a program called Equity 2000.  The 6 pilot sites included Providence, Rhode Island, where I was then serving on the School Board.

The idea was to eliminate all the “business,” “consumer,” and other dummy-math courses.  Put every 9th grader in Algebra I on the assumption that many could make it, given the chance.  Every high-school student would have 4 years to get through Geometry and the much-loathed Alg II.

Providence decided to back up even further.  All 6th graders went into Pre-Algebra, creating a year of preparation and even more time to plow through the traditional sequence.  If nothing else, the kids would get real math.

While kind-hearted, perhaps, the teachers’ hue and cry about the kids not being able to do the work only strengthened our resolve to raise expectations and boost kids’ opportunities.  All math teachers 6-12 got College-Board training — though surely not enough.

Still, two terrific unintended consequences emerged.

First, apart from the struggling students the program was designed to help, it was a godsend to the smarty-pantses.  My kids were going through the system at the time, so I saw for myself the Brown, Providence, and Rhode Island College professors’ kids, among others, happily booking through the sequence, finishing Algebra I in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th.  Those kids began 9th grade taking Algebra II.  The local exam school, Classical High, had to beef up its math program to keep up with them.

Secondly, teachers started creating classes of slower students who, while not mastering the prescribed full year of a math subject, still got credit for what they did achieve.  This allowed them to move forward, instead of flat-out repeating, which is such a drag — and an invitation to drop out.  Students in Providence’s large schools could be sorted into differently-paced classes, with names like Pre-Algebra Part II.  Kids got through the traditional sequence at varying rates, but as a result, many entered high school ready for Geometry.

And since their math courses were more rigorous, and at the same time more flexible, students failed courses at much less damaging rates.

Bottom line:  In time, Equity 2000 got many more urban kids into college.

But in truth, it only picked up the kids for whom low expectations were the only real problem.  It didn’t much change how math is taught.

The NY Times’ readers insisted on algebra’s importance to teaching logic, patterning, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking — in other words, reasoning.  Absolutely true.

But the great majority of learners — estimated at two-thirds — need to wrestle with a real-world problem, and think it through, in order to grasp the abstract concepts embedded in the solutions.  Math instruction mainly focuses on the algorithms, formulae and procedures to get to right answers instead of thinking through problems.  Programs likeConnected Math make some attempt to use real-world problems to teach algebraic abstractions.

But my now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing since high school that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful.

And lo!  At the Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) in Marlborough, Massachusetts, every student 6 through 11th grade takes computer science, in conjunction with math and the sciences, where programming skills come in very handy.  AMSA had to invent the curriculum, because none was available.

Legions of students apply to this charter school, not because they adore math, but just to escape whatever school they would otherwise attend.  This forced AMSA to figure out how to intrigue the “poets and philosophers,” especially among the girls, who arrive full-on hating math and science.  AMSA’s been remarkably successful, enjoying off-the-map state-mandated math-test scores.

Equity 2000 was right-minded, but limited.  It needed far more tricks, options, and new approaches to lure students into the puzzles of mathematical reasoning.

And really, in this day and age, shouldn’t all kids start learning computer-science right about 6th grade anyway?

America’s K-12 educators can’t afford to keep lowering the bar.  Raise it, instead, by all means.  But get creative.  It’s 2012.  Can we really not see the value of computer science as a compelling teaching strategy?

Who are the slow learners here?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


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Let Kids Outside for Long-Lasting Learning

Published by — We need to expose kids to the outdoors where they can play and learn naturally.

“We’ve come to believe that being outside is not good for children’s health.

Adults worry kids will catch cold, get sun-burned, bitten by a dog or tick, break a bone in an accident, become victims of “stranger danger,” or a thousand other adversities.

“We can try to protect kids from everything.  But at what cost?  Kids are spending up to 8 hours a day on digital media, contradicting their natural programming to learn the natural world.”  Meaning: kids are hard-wired to become skilled at living in whatever bit of the eco-system is their home – the jungle, forest, seashore, desert.  Human children evolved to thrive in nature, not in protected isolation like zoo animals.

David Sobel, senior faculty member at Antioch University in New Hampshire, specializes in “place-based education.”  That just involves using wherever the kids are as a giant learning lab.  Specifics in a moment.

Sobel spoke recently at Roger William Zoo, in a huge tent-created auditorium, packed to standing room only, in spite of pouring rain.  Thrillingly, all manner of educators, politicians and agency staff were there to think about giving children back their childhoods.

Which starts by giving them back the outdoors.

After graduating from Williams College, Sobel went to England to train as British infant teacher, which in our terms means pre-school.  He returned in the early 1970s to found the Harrisville School in New Hampshire.

He tells this story from those early days directing that school.  A period of relentless rain had been driving his pre-schoolers stir crazy.  The instant the rain stopped, kids burst outdoors to run around.

Rainwater was gushing out of a drainpipe, creating a “child-sized rivulet” that cut a path along a slope.  Two boys took an interest in making a dam to divert and control the water’s flow.  Other kids came along.  Soon an large upper dam developed.  Then subsidiary channels appeared, bringing water to a lower dam.

Sobel exclaims, “Suddenly it was a massive project.  They argued about should they raise this dam, deepen this ditch?  But they worked it out.  They’d yell ‘Ten minutes to flood,’ warning they would let a dam go.  So for the next 2 weeks, the curriculum was about mud, dirt, water and damming.  It was a good example of kids descending into their wild selves, their animal selves.  It was just old naturalistic play, such as kids do all over the world.”

Such as even Americans of a certain age used to do.

Now it’s called “place-based education.”  As a principal writer and thinker on the subject, Sobel has devoted much of his career to helping people understand that the natural world holds enormous, compelling power for teaching kids science, among other things.  Whatever bit of nature is close at hand is a fine start to a learning lab.

Bottom line:  “We need to create the infrastructure so kids can do that.”

In agricultural times, students came in from the fields and cow-barns to learn the science behind what they knew from hands-on experience.  I love the kit-based science promoted by the National Science Foundation because kits bring interesting natural experiences indoors.  But at the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of stuff that comes out of a box, onto desks in a classroom.

Kits are not tidal estuaries, rivers, or green space begging to be explored.  They’re prefabricated experience.

About 20 years ago, Sobel says, Germany started a “forest-kindergarten” movement, specifically to combat children’s alienation from nature.  Sometimes called the “rain or shine” schools, kids were outside all or most of the day.

“Now they are doing this in Scandinavia.  Some schools have a yurt or a green house, but some have no heating at all.  Kids are oblivious.”

Furthermore, it makes them healthier.  Sobel explains, “Outdoor pre-schools have lower rates of absenteeism and infectious diseases than regular ones.”

In fact, “over the last 10 years, researchers have found that physical activity outside produces better health, strength, flexibility and coordination.  Contact with nature lowers stress, behavior disorder and anxiety.”

Apparently, even hospital studies show that if your window has a view of nature, you will heal better and faster than if your view is a parking lot or the building next door.

I love this:  “Physicians are now prescribing time outdoors for ADD.”

Currently 9.5 percent of America’s kids are taking drugs for this condition.  Yes, I’ve known a few kids brought back from total dysfunction with medication.  But the drugs can have serious long-term side effects, and mostly what we’re doing is drugging kids’ wild, animal selves into submissive compliance.  ADD drugs help perfectly healthy little energy dynamos tolerate the long periods of sitting at desks, often preparing for tests.

Since that’s the aspect of education we adults seem to care about.

But even on the subject of test scores, Sobel assures us that “place-based education improves academic achievement.”

So there it is: if you want healthier, smarter, more socially-adept, resilient kids, work with your community to make a cool, accessible place where kids can mess around with nature.  The adults’ job is to be around, but always at a little distance.  At that remove, adults’ can figure out how to feed kids’ natural hunger to know more about how to master whatever they’re doing.

Because that kind of learning you don’t forget the day after the test.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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