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University News

CS professor receives federal grant for youth math program

Krishnamurthi developed Bootstrap over 20-year period, hopes for national school expansion

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2015

Professor of Computer Science Shriram Krishnamurthi received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the study and expansion of Bootstrap — an online math program he helped develop that teaches algebra to middle and high school students nationwide by creating one-of-a-kind video games — the University announced Oct. 7.

“Algebra is a critical skill, but students don’t seem to appreciate it,” Krishnamurthi said, adding that Bootstrap offers a new way of teaching the subject. With the grant’s funding, Krishnamurthi and his co-workers will be able to expand deployment of the program as well as evaluate the results of the program for students, teachers and parents.

Bootstrap’s operating system

Emmanuel Schanzer, Bootstrap’s program director, said Bootstrap uses a programming language based on math, which is how it differentiates itself from other programs like it.  He encountered the foundation of this algebraic programming language during his undergraduate schooling at Cornell and later built upon it with the Bootstrap team to translate complex mathematical concepts into ones middle and high school students can comprehend.

“It truly is a math class,” Schanzer said.  Bootstrap behaves in a formulaic way such that math teachers are familiar with the language and are receptive to the program, he added.

Students take the Bootstrap course, consisting of multiple unit mini-projects that make up 25 hours of course material, during their math class. The idea of the program is for students to use learned algebraic concepts to design their own video games, in hopes that those children will retain the concepts for use outside of the video game. “The students learn the combination of math and computer science concepts they need to add features to the games they are trying to build,” said Kathi Fisler, Bootstrap’s co-director.

The mini-projects are each conducted twice — at first, students work by themselves but then they contribute to a larger project in their second attempt, in what Schanzer calls  “practice and application.” During the second go-around, students are paired with one another, and together they must combine their knowledge to finish making the video game. Pairing students together creates a type of positive peer pressure and a sense of teamwork, Schanzer said.

Each of the program’s units introduces a different mathematical concept by utilizing both paper and pencil activities and computer challenges that the students can then apply to the production of their video games. “The kids create a game that represents their personality, and with the program being implemented into math classes, Bootstrap is able to reach every child because everyone is required to take it,” Krishnamurthi said. “We are changing the way people think about algebra.”

Teachers are given the option to “sprinkle Bootstrap across their lesson plans, to integrate and mix the program more heavily or to teach it as a stand-alone course,” Schanzer said.

20 years in the making

Schanzer pitched the idea to Krishnamurthi and Fisler, who were previously working on an outreach project called Program by Design, 20 years ago. The program’s credibility has been built up over the last decade, Schanzer said. Brown students have contributed to building the software system and have taught Bootstrap in some middle and high school after-school classes.

In 2010, Kurt Spindler ’13, a software engineer at Uber, taught Bootstrap classes to seventh graders at Gilbert Stewart Middle School after Schanzer came to his CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction”  class and pitched the idea. Around 10 Brown students were volunteering with Bootstrap at this time, Spindler said. Teams of three or four Brown students worked with more than one school each semester and were assigned to classes of about 15 students.

Spindler said the program is a “really great way” to introduce kids to math and science. “It sounded like an amazing opportunity and it was definitely rewarding,” he said.

“Kids at that age have such abstract concepts and creative minds,” Spindler added. “It’s their exploration phase.”

Jonah Kagan ’13, a software engineer for the technology company Clever, taught Bootstrap to sixth-grade students in the spring of 2010.   “I had a lot of fun working with the kids in the program, and it helped me develop both my teaching skills and reinforced my own knowledge,” he said.

‘Building up’

In New York City, there is a city Department of Education initiative for every child in New York City public schools to learn how to program by 2020, a requirement the city has promised to meet, Krishnamurthi said. Similar initiatives are underway in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well, he added. 

“Very few schools have qualified computer science teachers,” Krishnamurthi said, adding that people who know computer science “could make much more money working somewhere else as opposed to being a teacher.”

By working directly with school districts, Bootstrap is able to reach a much larger scale and maintain long-lasting relationships with communities, thus “building up master teachers,” Schanzer said. “Through Bootstrap, we are changing the way algebra and computer science are taught.”

In addition to teaching students algebra, Bootstrap also trains teachers in coding and the implementation of the Bootstrap curriculum. It provides detailed lesson plans for teachers who otherwise would not be willing to learn and incorporate a new program into their agenda, Schanzer said. “We provide everything (teachers) need,” Krishnamurthi said.

Bootstrap originated as an after-school program, but the directors found it had a greater impact when incorporated into mandatory math classes. “Extracurricular computer science classes tend to reach a narrow band of students — often those from privileged backgrounds,” Fisler said. Integrating Bootstrap into teachers’ curriculums allows the program to reach students who otherwise would not have access to this after-school activity.

The computer science community is male-dominated, and incorporating computer science concepts into a math class allows students of all demographics to learn about programming, which could lead to students wanting to become computer scientists, Schanzer said. “There are trends in creating computer science electives and clubs, but the moment it becomes optional is when it becomes problematic,” he added.

Studies have shown that girls are more motivated when the project they are partaking in is socially applied as opposed to theoretical, Schanzer said. Teachers using Bootstrap in their classroom are recommended to suggest video game ideas, such as helping out a younger sibling or picking up trash at the bottom of the ocean, to stimulate students’ minds and make them excited about computer science and algebra.

Looking forward

With the help of the grant he received, Krishnamurthi hopes Bootstrap will “go big” and maximize its reach within the education system. For many years the program has been trying to get people interested in the teaching of computer science through math, and the grant represents federal recognition of that goal.

The program is currently focusing on its expansion in the United States. It has already made a mark internationally in countries such as Turkey, Costa Rica, Finland, Thailand, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, Pakistan, France, India and Brazil. 

“We’re trying to get into many more schools, particularly with more teachers who don’t think of themselves as people who can teach computer science,” Fisler said. “We need to get math teachers from various backgrounds comfortable, confident and willing to use the program.”


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