Math skills, such as data analysis and statistics, are one of the most sought-after skills for new employees, even in fields outside of STEM. But many students think that they’re not a “math person” and disengage from math topics.
In addition, students’ math scores hit historically low levels on national assessments during the pandemic, and educators are looking for ways to engage their students in the subject.
Lindsay Gold, an associate professor in the school of education at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and one of her undergraduate students wanted to find out if incorporating coding and social-emotional learning into math lessons would increase elementary students’ interest in math.
“There are other ways to teach math that are not stress-induced and pressure-forming, because we want the students to see that math is fun,” Gold said. “We don’t want it to be the subject that everybody hates and dreads.”
In an interview with Education Week, Gold explained how she integrated coding and SEL principles into 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade math lessons and how it affected student engagement.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you incorporate coding into elementary math lessons?
To introduce coding principles, we talked about the engineering design process. It was a basic version of the “ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve” process. Then students had to write what their idea of coding was. Some drew pictures, some wrote up sentences. A lot of the things they could think of had to do with video games and that kind of stuff. We also read technical writing to be able to think about different coding languages.
Then using Texas Instruments’ TI-Nspire [a graphing calculator] and TI Innovator Rover [a robotic vehicle], we taught students to code for sound and color. First, we had students get used to what happens when you input a code [in the graphing calculator]. For instance, they would enter a value for red, green, or blue, and see what color it makes together. Then they can go back and manipulate [the values] to change the color. We did the same thing for sound. We talked about frequency and pitch. And then we got into the geometry aspect of it, coding for lines, segments, arrays. We asked them to code a line segment that was X centimeters long. And then we did the same thing with angles, rectangles, triangles, pentagons, etcetera.
Once we got through that portion, we had a track challenge for those who were comfortable. We taped off a track on the floor and they had to see if they could completely write their own program to get the rover to go through the track. We purposely put in angles and things that we just talked about into the track to see if they could do that. Everybody was successful, and they all got their driver’s license to drive the TI Rover.
How was social-emotional learning added to the mix?
SEL was a big part of it. We wanted to get students to work together, to be self-aware, to be aware of others, to get confidence in providing their own opinion, and to work on the ability to listen to others. We wanted the students to feel like everybody had a voice, and that doesn’t always happen in the mathematics classroom. There tends to be this hierarchy where students either feel really confident and comfortable in their ability, or they feel very much like they’re not a math person. We have to talk a lot about there’s no such thing as a math person. It’s not the secret club that you weren’t invited to. [SEL] showed the students that everybody had something to offer.
What did teachers think of this activity?
In the beginning, they were really hesitant. They were very nervous about the calculator and extremely nervous about coding because they didn’t have experience with that. But they saw that their elementary students could do it, and that they could use this technology to enhance instruction. I wanted to show them that there are ways to teach math and engage in math that students will remember and internalize and want to do more. When we do this again, we’re going to do even more teacher professional development to make sure that they’re comfortable.
How did this activity affect student engagement and performance?
They very much enjoyed the coding, and they very much enjoyed having the ability to make something work. They felt more comfortable with the concepts, in their abilities to do the math, to engage in STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and math] learning, they better understood the engineering design process. And while we couldn’t track actual student achievement to see if there was a correlation there, we were able to see that in the spring, when the teachers talked about angles again, the students remembered what we had done in the fall. Projects like this are teaching students how to really problem-solve and think versus just memorize.