Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Breaking the Algebra Barrier

   Joshua and Jordann, our two oldest grand kids, are approaching the grade levels where algebra is taught and our six other grand kids aren’t far behind. And I am a concerned grandparent. Perhaps you too are a concerned grandparent or parent.

   It’s no news that students that are successful learning arithmetic often stumble and even fall, without ever getting up, when faced with learning algebra.
As a math and science educator, I can report that little attention is given to laying the conceptual groundwork students need to make the transition from arithmetic to algebra.

   When classroom computers became available in the early 1980s (my first computer was an 8K Commodore PET with tape cassette drive), I believed that finally, we had a tool that would make learning algebra not only relevant but also easy! That belief was—and still is— based on the fact that programming requires algebraic thinking.

   Perhaps the most fundamental concept in algebra and programming is the concept of a variable. In the typical algebra text, the variable concept is briefly mentioned and then quickly followed by the never-ending song and dance between the x’s and the y’s. The variable x becomes synonymous with unknown and for many students, the x and algebra itself remains an unknown.

   Dr. Zalman Usiskin, in his article, Conceptions of School Algebra and Uses of Variables discusses and gives examples of the five different ways the variable concept is used in algebra. [Click here http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/smg224/401pdfs/algebrareadings/usiskin1.pdf
to download a copy of his article.]

   He goes on to say that computer programming makes use of all five uses of the variable! For this and many other reasons (problem-solving and logical thinking are just two) I hope my grand kids are willing to learn introductory programming so that I can help them understand the importance and relevance of algebra.
   It is in this spirit that I have started a second blog devoted to helping beginners learn to program, maintaining contact with the teachers I work with, and to having a place to share my math and science programming projects. To visit Pops’ Scratch Blog, go to

   The Scratch programming language is free and can be downloaded at
and while you’re there, check out the site as it is a very friendly place for kids of all ages and offers the opportunity to become part of a programming community that has 12 million registered members that have created and uploaded almost 14 million programming projects.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Scratch – Programming for Kids of All Ages

   I've started another blog devoted to the Scratch programming language. Scratch is designed for kids as it's easy to create projects that include motion, color, and sound. Kids can import their digital photos, music, and record audio directly into Scratch using the microphone input on the computer.
   I captured this graph from the Scratch website to show you that there are a significant number of Scratch programmers. The graph shows the number of registered Scratch users by age. Note that there are over 300,000 in the 13 through 17 years old peak of the graph. The horizontal bar shows the number of users from the age of ten to twenty one. As a registered Scratch user myself, I am an outlier whose age doesn't even appear on the right side of the graph!
   Also note that there are a number of older Scratch programmers. These users tend to have high skill levels and produce some amazing programs for a kids-focused site.
   I only know of one educator, a high school math teacher, that is actually teaching Scratch to students. My guess is that most of the kids that appear in the above graph are not using Scratch at school but are using it at home or outside of formal class instruction.
   As a math educator myself, it amazes me that the new math standards do not recognize programming as an example of applied mathematics or as an incredible problem-solving environment!
   As my grand kids move up the grade levels, I want to be there for them in case they do get interested in computer programming. There is also a group, albeit small by Internet standards, that also enjoy the math and science computer projects I do for my own entertainment. The Scratch website (http://scratch.mit.edu/) hosts uploading projects for other Scratch users to enjoy and perhaps pick up on a new programming technique or two. My projects can be viewed at


   If you, your kids, or grand kids are interested in learning more about Scratch, visit my new blog at


where they will find a growing series of short introductions to Scratch programming. The first is a video that tells you how to download Scratch (Free!) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
   Scratch is financially supported at the MIT Media Lab by generous grants from the Microsoft and Intel corporations. It is a very active site that literally changes from minute to minute as new uploaded projects are displayed.