Science & Research

Bootstrap brings coding, math to middle schools

Developed in part by Brown faculty, curriculum supports White House’s CS for All initiative

Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2016

Ten thousand middle school students in 17 states are now designing video games while solving algebra problems, thanks to Bootstrap, a curriculum developed by Emmanuel Schanzer, Shriram Krishnamurthi, professor of computer science and Kathryn Fisler, adjunct professor of computer science.

Initiated in 2006, Bootstrap is used by 250 teachers across the United States and five other countries, Krishnamurthi said. As part of President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, the curriculum has received national attention and was featured on the White House blog.

“We want to make a significant contribution to the way math is taught in the United States, and we want everyone to be exposed to computer science,” Schanzer said. “We tried to make something light enough so that it feels like exposure, but heavy enough so that it’s a meaningful and memorable first step into computer science.”

Bootstrap helps students learn algebra, a necessary life skill, and introduces computer science to students early enough so they do not rule it out as a career choice without being exposed to it, Krishnamurthi said.

“Computing has become a fundamental tool for many different disciplines,” Fisler said. “Some are science disciplines, but some aren’t. Look at how much media is produced digitally and how a lot of artists now need to know about computation.”

Since 1995, Krishnamurthi has been working in computer science outreach and education. Krishnamurthi worked with his adviser at Rice University, Matthias Felleisen, on Program by Design — a curriculum for high school and college students, Krishnamurthi said.

As a high school teacher in Boston, Schanzer saw his students struggling with algebra and was inspired to find a new way to teach it, he said. Using the programming language Racket, Schanzer began to develop a curriculum for middle and high school students.

In a chance meeting on an MBTA train, Felleisen, one of the creators of Racket, noticed Schanzer using the programming language, Krishnamurthi said. Felleisen connected Schanzer to Krishnamurthi and Fisler: From then on, the three worked together to further develop and refine what became Bootstrap, Krishnamurthi added.

Adam Newall, a seventh- and eighth-grade algebra teacher at Pembroke Community Middle School in Boston, has implemented Bootstrap in his curriculum for the past three years and seen his students learn effectively from the program, he said.

One of Newall’s students created a typing game that matches the alphabet to pictures of animals, he said. His mother, who is a kindergarten teacher, was inspired to use in her own classroom, Newall said.

His mother’s school reached out and asked him to create more programs for their students, motivating him to stay late for weeks after school to write code longhand, Newall added.

Instead of creating something for their own “personal pleasure,” Newall encourages his students to make “something that could convey a message to someone,” he said. “They think about that a lot and interpret it in a lot of different ways.”

Bootstrap has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, The Herald previously reported. The grant will be used over three years to study how students can use programming to improve their math skills, Fisler said.

In addition to the team itself, external groups have evaluated the effectiveness of Bootstrap by comparing students’ performance on word problems before and after the program, Krishnamurthi said.

Going forward, the group hopes to implement Bootstrap in even more schools and make it accessible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, Krishnamurthi said, adding that he hopes to further develop Bootstrap to apply it to the teaching of calculus.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Shriram Krishnamurthi has been interested in computer science outreach and education since 1985. In fact, he has been working in computer science outreach and education since 1995. Also, a previous version of this article stated that Matthias Felleisen is the creator of Racket. In fact, he is one of the creators of Racket. The Herald regrets the errors.