Well, computer scientist/educator Emmanuel Schanzer hopes to change all that. As the brilliant mastermind behind the innovative computer program, "Bootstrap," Schanzer hopes to revolutionize the concept of learning algebra using video game development.
How unique is Schanzer's concept? Consider the story of seven-year old Zora Ball. In 2013, this cherub-faced, 1st grader became the youngest person in history to create a mobile app game! Imagine that? What's more, Zora Ball did this using Bootstrap.
In this interview, Emmanuel Schanzer explains the mystery and beauty of computer science, his wish to get more kids excited about math and computer programming and future goals for the program, Bootstrap.
A. To a child, the idea that you can make a computer do something is incredibly powerful. I started out playing with HyperCard back in the late 1980s, and wound up making a stack to teach myself the parts of a cell. I was just obsessed with this idea that I could make the computer do what I wanted, and that I could turn my thoughts into actions just by hitting some keys.
For me, the most appealing thing about programming was the aesthetics of a "good program." As I continued to hack on old code I'd written, I started noticing that some things were easily extensible while others were not: design decisions I'd made early on had major implications later! There was something incredibly satisfying about coming up with a "beautiful" design, which perfectly expressed the functionality I was looking for. Suddenly, programming felt more like an art than a science. It was a craft, an iterative process of shaving down a program into the purest form that expresses what I was trying to do. That blend of scientific rigor and artistic creativity was intoxicating, and when I applied to college, I knew I wanted more.
Q2. You worked for Microsoft. What did you do there?
A. I was an intern the summer before my senior year, working in the Common Language Runtime group. I wrote a few whitepapers to introduce developers to some of the new technologies that were coming out at the time. After graduation, I was hired into the Mac Business Unit, where I designed a few features for the Macintosh versions of Microsoft Word and Messenger.
Q3. What led you to create your program, "Bootstrap?"
A. I designed Bootstrap to introduce young people to computer programming, in a way that was both math-enriching and teacher-friendly.
It's great to get students engaged in computer science, but they're not even going to college if they don't succeed in math. In some ways, I think we (the tech-ed community) still spend way too much energy on the engagement side of the equation, without addressing the constraints that our highest-needs students face.
Most of the languages and tools that I see today have things called "functions" and "variables" that behave quite differently from functions and variables in math class. I think it's great to teach these languages to students, but if you have a student who's struggling to understand functions in math class, you're just making it worse by throwing a whole other concept with the same name into the mix. By contrast, the functions students write and interact with in Bootstrap really do behave they would in a math class, and that opens up a tremendous opportunity to help reinforce the core concepts that students need most.
When I say "teacher friendly," I mean that there's so much more to education than making tools. We in the tech field are incredibly good at making engaging, creative and exciting tools. But as a former teacher, having a great tool is just the first step. Teachers want lesson plans, standards alignment, homework assignments, quizzes, handouts, workbooks, etc. I wanted to create something that was more than a tool, where each piece of the puzzle was developed to work seamlessly with the other pieces, rather than bolted on afterwards.
A. We're totally blown away by the uptake in the last few years. We get emails from teachers all over the country (and as far away as India and Indonesia) asking questions, giving us suggestions for how to make the program better, or sharing their experience. It's incredibly humbling, and I still have to pinch myself sometimes.
The first few people who used our curriculum were engineers and college students, volunteering their time at an afterschool program in Boston. At the time, it made sense to target our materials at non-teachers, so we added a ton of content designed to help them along with their pedagogy and technique. Six years later, most Bootstrap students are learning from a professional teacher, and those teachers have very different needs for curricular materials. Almost all of the changes we've made since 2010 have been aimed at serving those teachers better.
What's next for Bootstrap? Well, we're in the process of overhauling our materials this summer to make them better suited to in-school educators. We're also looking into some technologies that we're really excited about, which will allow us to bring our math-based programming constructs to younger children and better tools for self-guided learners.
Q5. How can parents and/or other concerned individuals bring this to their public/private/charter schools or afterschool program? What step(s) need to be taken and what kind of funding is needed to launch it?
A. All of our materials are given away freely on our website (www.BootstrapWorld.org), so there's no funding required. If you're a teacher that wants Bootstrap, you can start teaching now! Many afterschool programs allow volunteers to come in and teach class, so if you're a parent or an engineer you may want to see what's available in your neighborhood.
The vast majority of people also find it useful to get some training or professional development, and we offer workshops across the country. These workshops are listed on our website, and you can also contact us directly to set up a workshop for your school or school district.
A. I think the key word in this question is what will help a child prepare for a major in computer science, and how is that different from them "hacking around" on their home computer?
Programming is about so much more than writing code! It's wonderful if your child has tons of experience writing code, but if they want to major in the field, they'll need to widen their perspective. Encourage them to learn a second or third programming language, especially if that language is really different from the one they already know. Talk with them about what they've learned, and ask them to reflect on the differences between the languages or tools. Have them explain their programs to you, and really push them to talk about each line of code. Even if you don't understand every detail, your child will learn a lot by having to talk through each of their decisions and explain them to someone else.
I think there's a common misconception out there that the key to helping a child learn is about finding the right program, book or class. Those are definitely helpful, but I think the biggest concern is that your child feels like their interests are valued by a community. That community can be you or your family, or it can be a peer group (either friends they already have or other students in a class or camp). It's a rare child who will pursue a discipline completely on their own, and those students are so self-motivated that they're probably going to major in computer science no matter what their parents do!
So my advice to parents is "all of the above!" Get them exposed to a variety of books and programs to deepen their knowledge, but above all, make sure their interest translates into relationships with others. Incidentally, this advice applies to any subject -- not just computer science!
Q7. There's been a lot of buzz regarding Zora Ball, the youngest individual ever to create a mobile game app. Have you had an opportunity to meet her? What are your thoughts regarding her achievement and your program?
A. I met Zora at the Philadelphia Bootstrap Expo, hosted by our partnership organization "Philly ConnectED." I was really impressed with what she accomplished, and I was honored to see how much she enjoyed Bootstrap. She's got a lot to learn about the world of programming, but she's well on her way!
Q8. You're studying for your doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. What are your future plans?
A. To graduate, of course!
I honestly can't say what my future plans are at this point. I created Bootstrap for my own classroom, and I feel unbelievably lucky that other educators have found it useful in theirs. I think the most exciting area in this space right now is the nexus between software development, curriculum development and professional development. We've only just scratched the surface, and I'd like to think I could find a career there.
To learn more about Bootstrap, visit http://www.bootstrapworld.org/ for further information.
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