Computer Programming Helps Develop Math Skills

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If you are looking for a project-based way to support math learning in the classroom, try computer programming. Several teachers have described to me how they are using Tynker (a creative computing platform) to support math – by easily creating fun math simulations, or creating real-world connections and structured collaboration with math concepts. If kids are creating games with computer programming, they are using and observing math skills in a fun way!

Math is a critical skill for kids to learn, and finding approaches to introduce and reinforce math skills in a way that is fun for kids can be a challenge. Teachers and parents around the world are starting to talk about how computer programming can be an engaging way to enhance math learning.

Visual Representation: The abstraction of math can be a challenge even to high-school kids. Providing the visual representation of what a math skill represents makes the lesson more accessible. Michelle Lagos, a computer science teacher at the American school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras observes, “One of the most common cross curricular benefits of computer programming is that the kids have an easier time learning math skills.” She has started using visual programming applications like Tynker in the elementary classes and adds, “When they have to work on long division, it is easier for them to visualize the numbers now instead of counting with their fingers. They visualize the equation and think of the best way to solve it. We have seen kids in many grades improve their math skills.”

Jesse Thorstad, Technology coordinator for the Fergus Falls Public Schools district in Minnesota adds, “[Visual programming] provides kids with concrete examples of math. For example, when studying decimal places, my students experienced a heartwarming ‘Ah-ha!’ moment when they saw how changing the decimal place in a number written in a code block could affect the animated objects on the screen tenfold.”

Real World Application: Instead of math being an esoteric subject that is confined to the classroom environment, students who learn programming can see the practical uses of math and the relevance of math to their lives and future careers.

According to Tomas Durkin (Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco), “Most students are unaware of how much math is involved in the games that they love to play. Random numbers make a game more unpredictable and challenging. Geometry is needed to make characters move around the screen in different directions. Basic Algebra is used to keep score. Although they might not be consciously aware of it, by teaching students how make games, we are also reinforcing mathematics concepts that they are learning back at school. For students who want to add jumping to their games, we can even teach them physics concepts like density, friction, and gravity!”

Math teachers I’ve spoken to also agree that programming is a real-world way to teach mathematical thinking. They have mentioned that when students create or debug a program, they practice problem solving, and for younger children, some of the free coding tablet apps incorporate identification of patterns as well.

Fostering Creativity: Die-hard mathematicians point to the inherent beauty in math. One commonly used example is the presence of Fibonacci numbers in shell spirals and flower petals. Math classes that are also learning visual programming use these sequences to create digital art. 10-year-old Jacob Myers, who is a big math buff and regularly competes in math contests, has used Tynker to make math art with spirals and triangles -- an exciting way to explore and experience math concepts!

Encouraging Collaboration. Valerie Sabbag, 5th grade teacher at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto, adds that computer programming can be a collaborative activity, making an otherwise dull subject a lot more fun. Maybe they're needing help calculating output variables, or maybe they’re trying to figure out how much time a character needs to reach a winning condition. “With Tynker, I’ve seen them ask their friends, ‘well you’ve done this in your game, so how do I do it’. They see the end result that they want to get to and they are motivated to collaborate, problem solve, and figure out what they need to do.”

Making Math Fun: Parents are also realizing that programming-related activities can make math fun for kids. I can attest to this! I have seen my own kids (15 year old, 11 year old and 8 year old) apply mathematical thinking to solve Tynker coding puzzles. Without realizing it, they are identifying attributes and grouping variables, applying conditional logic, developing algorithmic functions, and calculating angles within geometric shapes. But most of all, they are patiently articulating hypotheses to solve problems, and boldly applying trial-and-error experimentation – strategies required by any field of study. And this is in addition to some of the coding that requires real math – to correctly calculate wait times, set score counters, calculate points, and time interactions between characters in their Tynker games.

Can programming improve math skills? Quite possibly. But the biggest benefit may be that programming makes learning math fun and exciting for kids. If kids realize they are using math when programming, it could actually build their confidence with math, and show them that mathematical thinking can be cool. Math becoming cool? What could be better than that?

Jennifer Apy is an involved parent, a public education supporter, and champion for innovative educational products for children. She is currently VP of Marketing for Tynker.

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