Driving Student Engagement in Mathematics with Coding and Programming

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Aug 30, 2016



In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating a group of teachers from the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) who embarked on an Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) Collaborative Learning Community (CLC) Project to explore the role of computer programming and coding in mathematics instruction.


Across Ontario, school districts are very aware of the ever-quickening pace of programming and coding education worldwide. Students are excited and ready to go when it comes to learning how to code and program, and teachers are stepping up to ensure students are getting a jumpstart at an early age.


The Project


LDCSB educators Richard Annesley, Steve Floyd, Tim Miller, Mark Palma and Catherine Veteri, believe students learning how to code is of the utmost importance.


This group, ranging from grade 4 to high school, developed a Collaborative Learning Communities (CLC) project to research the benefits of student coding and programming. This unique project not only focused on an innovative topic, but also included students from elementary and secondary schools.


The purpose of the project was to explore what happens when a student learns coding. Does he or she use this knowledge as a link to understand mathematic concepts? This was the major question the group wanted to investigate. The group's work was closely based on research by Dr. George Gadanidis from Western University in London, Ontario. Gadanidis specializes in computational thinking and believes that students of all ages from elementary to high school should be educated in coding, programming, and technology for the many benefits that come along with it.



In a research report developed by Lisa Floyd and Brian Aspinall for a graduate course on Computational Thinking in Math and Science Education, these benefits are outlined. The report shows that learning to program and code makes mathematical concepts more tangible, helps students develop pattern and structure awareness, and gave students the agency to become creators with technology rather than just consumers.




To begin their learning journey, the team took part in collaborative discussions about coding and programming and its connection to mathematics instruction. Grade 11 and 12 computer engineering and computer science teacher Steve Floyd, showed his colleagues how the block based programming tools available for younger students compare to widely used, text based coding languages like JAVA and Python. The group shared resources as they learned from one another and quickly implemented their new learnings throughout the course of a school year. Through this process the group explored the impact their lessons had on students’ broader knowledge of mathematics.


For example, grade 4 teacher at St. Marguerite d'Youville Catholic School Tim Miller developed "unplugged" activities that incorporated physical activity with coding language skills. Students would interact directly with cards that represented code as a way to develop sequential writing skills.


Similarly, in one lesson, grade 5/6 teacher at St. Marguerite d'Youville Catholic School Richard Annesley helped students learn to write, represent, and announce the numbers zero to 10 while using ScratchJr. Annesley used pre-made cards with the numbers written on them and placed them face down on a desk. Students would respond when a card was selected by speaking up and also used Scratch characters to represent the number. This exercise helped students recognize numbers through finding connections to the software.


Furthermore, in order to help students explore angles in triangles, squares, pentagons, and hexagons, grade 7/8 teacher at Holy Cross elementary school Mark Palma used Scratch and ScratchJr – a free programming tool developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Palma developed an exercise to make a sprite turn in a circle, move on a line, and eventually complete a triangular pattern. This lesson reinforced the principles of geometry to students while growing their knowledge of basic coding.



Moreover, to gain a better understanding of topics in mathematics such as parallel lines and interior and exterior angles, Secondary Mathematics teacher at Holy Cross High School Catherine Veteri used Spheros. Her exercise involved teaching students four to six basic tile commands using the Sphero app. They were able to use the commands to investigate the area and perimeter of a square and a rectangle.


Additionally, Steve Floyd worked with his grade 11 and grade 12 Computer Science students at Mother Teresa High School, exposing his classes to tool such as Sphero, ScratchJr and Scratch. Students then offered their opinions on how these block based tools compared to the text based programming languages students were using at the high school level. “My wife Lisa has been doing a tremendous amount of work in the area of teaching computational thinking and problem solving skills," reports Floyd. "Hearing my high school students talk about the importance of problem solving and computational thinking, and having them realize that the syntax of the language isn’t that important, was profound. All of this tech is an amazing context for the learning of so many skills beyond the accurate placement of commas, semi colons and braces.”


Over the course of the year, the CLC group discovered that their students had substantial prior knowledge of technology and its applications. This observation allowed them to make their starting points for lessons a little more advanced. It also helped them gauge the types of lessons to demonstrate at schools they visited.


The team of educators also found that the project had changed not only their view of teaching, but gave them a deeper perspective on how new knowledge can benefit students and teachers.


The group documented their progress on Twitter using the hashtag #CLCMathAndCompProg to archive both images and learning.




Richard Annesley says that his students' confidence in mathematics has greatly benefited from learning how to code.


"Students responded with consistent enthusiasm," says Annesley. "Students were sharing their projects and accomplishments with each other and provided peer-to-peer feedback about how they could improve coding developments.”


He found that through the coding activities students who were once reluctant to take on math began to enjoy it. They started using coding as a context for learning and even found themselves learning at home while playing with software like Scratch. It opened their minds to a new way of thinking.



As part of their CLC, the team planned a celebration to highlight student achievement. The Coding and Mathematics Showcase Day at St. Marguerite d'Youville Catholic School allowed their pupils to showcase what they had learned to teachers and administrators.


"It was a big day for us and we were all very proud," reports Veteri. "The students made all who attended see why we need this in our school and at an early age.”


Groups of students took on the role of facilitators to guide visitors through a variety of tasks including showing them how to navigate a Sphero through a maze and making a character move around the screen in Scratch. Students were able to show how their coding knowledge benefitted their understanding of mathematical concepts.


To build his knowledge of coordinates and measurements, Pablo Gonzales, a grade 6 student at St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic School, used Scratch. The programming language in the software allowed him to use numbers and commands to move characters around.


“I wanted to make a character move in Scratch, so I had to use ‘x’ and ‘y’ coordinates,” says Gonzales. “I had to use lots of measurements too.”


"I really like this way of learning," chimes Gonzales. "The lessons stay in your mind a lot longer."


He encourages other students to take on programming because he says it helps you see the world differently and assists you with problem solving.



"Math really is everywhere," he says thoughtfully. "In coding you have to think of ways to make something work. When I see something in a video game now I think about how the code would appear and how I can make a mini version of it.”


"It’s a fun way to learn, especially for kids who like to play video games. This way you’re making things happen and you get to see the end result. You also get to learn math without even thinking about it" - Pablo Gonzales


Pablo's father, Andres, has also noticed the growth his son has experienced while learning to code. "Pablo has always been very good at school, but coding and programming gave him a new challenge that he definitely took on. We are definitely looking forward to continuing this program next year."


With the help of facilitators like Richard Annesley, Steve Floyd, Tim Miller, Mark Palma and Catherine Veteri, students like Gonzales will have a chance to get a head start on learning math in this increasingly conventional way.


You can read the group’s Action Research Report, CLC-ActionResearchReport.docx . You can also take a look at some of the lessons plans they developed during their project, here.


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