A computer science and math teacher helps Grade 3/4s learn math and computer coding, using a certain flying animal to get them hooked.
By Stefan Dubowski
Photo: Brent Foster
The Challenge: Make math and computer coding less abstract for students.
The Solution: Give students an activity that links math and coding to a topic they are interested in.
Lessons Learned: Lisa Floyd, OCT, is a computer science and math teacher with the Thames Valley District School Board (currently on leave from the board and working as an instructor with the faculty of education at Western University). She regularly visits classrooms to show students that math and computer science can work together in useful ways. In one recent project with Scott McKenzie, OCT, and his Grade 3/4 class at New Dundee Public School, near Kitchener, Ont., Floyd, with her team (Ryan Matthews, OCT, and Katrina Massey, OCT) used a topic the students were interested in as the introduction to math and coding.
Floyd met McKenzie while participating in the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP). McKenzie had been leading a TLLP in the Waterloo Region District School Board, and had also been teaching coding.
The class of eight- and nine-year-olds happened to be studying bats. Building on the students’ fascination with these winged creatures, Floyd and her team devised a bat-themed activity. First, the students learned to program microcontrollers — simple computers designed for simple tasks, such as turning on a light. Next, they learned to program the devices to control ultrasonic sensors, which, like a bat’s sense of echolocation, tell how far away an object is.
Next came the math. The students were asked to program the sensors to indicate when an object is a certain distance away, say 60 centimetres. They would measure the distance, stand at that spot and use the sensors to verify their location.
“Then we introduced proportional reasoning,” Floyd says. “I asked them, ‘Can you stand two-thirds of that distance away?’ They had to figure out what two-thirds of 60 would be.” The students verified their calculations using the sensor.
Observations: “They were motivated and excited,” she says of the students — and she gets why. Unlike traditional math problems, the ones the Grade 3/4 class faced in this bat-themed session applied to something they wanted to know more about. As well, it provided instant feedback — no waiting for the teacher to say if the calculations are right or wrong. The sensors and the measurements could be verified. If the students got something wrong, they could adjust the parameters.
Many of them fumbled at first, which is more than OK. “Students aren’t expected to get it right the first time and that’s a good thing,” Floyd says. “There’s research to show that, in a way, you want them to fail, because that productive struggle will help them to learn more and they’ll see that if they keep working at it, they’ll get it.”
The College’s professional advisory Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media (oct-oeeo.ca/ecomm) guides members’ professional judgment in the use of technology.
Helpful Hint: Challenge your students. Working with one Grade 3/4 class, Lisa Floyd, OCT, decided to see if the students would be able to code using a more advanced language, since they had prior experience with a basic coding program.
What You’ll Need:
If you have never done computer coding before, there are a number of coding-capable teachers around the province more than willing to help.