[Edu-sig] Python and pre-algebra

David Handy david at handysoftware.com
Fri Jul 1 15:28:11 CEST 2011

On Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 10:41:45PM -0700, kirby urner wrote:
> On Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 8:03 PM, <mokurai at earthtreasury.org> wrote:
> >
> > On Wed, June 29, 2011 7:15 pm, mary.dooms at comcast.net wrote:
> > >
> > > I teach 6th grade math and Python was suggested as a way to apply
> > > pre-algebra concepts in a programming context. My programming background
> > > consists of one C++ programming class. How do I begin?
> >
> > Python is one of several excellent options. Others are Logo, Smalltalk,
> > and APL, all of which are available at no cost. I worked on a free APL for
> > 8-bit computers before the Free Software movement got started, and I have
> > friends working on APLs for current computers to put under the GPL.
> >
> APL was my first love at Princeton, back when most people (including
> me) had to use punch cards.  It was the interactivity I loved, among
> other aspects.  Logo the same way.  Grew into dBase later, always
> interactive, a dialog.  Languages divide into those which respond,
> conversationally, and those which must be looked at as non-conversational.
> Python joined the ranks of the conversationals.
> >
> > Assuming that your students know no Python, you could use the Sugar Labs
> > Turtle Art approach to math and programming to get started. Turtle Art was
> > designed for children to use for math, programming, and art, and has
> > natural ways to move to Logo, Python, or Etoys/Smalltalk. FORTH, too, but
> > most people don't want to know that. ^_^ (FORTH love if honk then)
> I was a math teacher in a day school for humans of the female
> persuasion, as one of the trusted male faculty (most were not male),
> but this was long before the Free Software movement (GNU / GPL),
> was still at the start of the first computer revolution.  No Internet
> yet, at least not for ordinary civilians like me.
> I dreamed of hypertext (read Computer Lib / Dream Machines
> by Ted Nelson) and joined IGC with a guest account at New
> Jersey Institute of Technology.  Proto-internet, pre-listserv.  In
> the meantime, snailmailers were proto-typing listservs via
> Action Linkage.  Anyone remember?  You'd mail your post to
> the anchor, who'd photocopy the lot and mail back out to
> subscribers.  The whole listserv phenomenon, happening
> through snailmail.  Lots of ethnography as yet unwritten.
> Mid 1980s.
> 'A Network Nation' by Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz.
> http://web.njit.edu/~turoff/Vita/vita2005.html#a30
> I lived behind Loew's Theater on Journal Square, the main
> PATH station in Jersey City.  By 1985, I was back in Portland,
> having been raised there through 2nd grade.
> >
> > The question is, which pre-algebra concepts? Do you have a curriculum
> > standard or a particular textbook in mind? Are there other topics of
> > interest?
> >
> > I can write TA or mixed TA/Python examples, and show students how to do
> > the same, and we could work together on lesson plans to share in the Sugar
> > Labs Replacing Textbooks program. There are others with an interest in
> > doing this.
> >
> Then I worked at McGraw-Hill (after some stuff in between), 28th floor,
> Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, editing textbooks, testing educational
> computer games, contributing curriculum writing (Logo, BASIC).
> Back then, we thought computers were soon to take the math teaching
> world by storm.  Little did we suspect that the North Americans would be
> conquered by Texas Instruments, leaving the innovation vista to
> other cultures and/or subversive counter-cultures still operational
> in some areas.
> OLPC (One Laptop per Child) was one attempt to break the TI lock
> on teacher imaginations.  For the most part, it failed in North America.
> The resistance was too great.  No breakfast cereal boxes featured
> the XO.  Nothing on the backs of Kellogs or General Mills.  No
> donated G1G1 commercials during Saturday Morning cartoons.
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFmQP3JimAE&feature=related
> http://youtu.be/XSH_5YP0tU8
> Few ever got a clue.  Teachers fell further and further behind.
> The situation was so bad in Hillsboro (personal anecdote), home
> of Intel in Oregon (Aloha plant) that the police got into the home
> schooling business, tried to do outreach to tomorrow's gangland
> by setting up a Linux Lab in West Precinct (where I came in, as
> a contract instructor).

I hope you don't mind me chiming in here. I grew up in Hillsboro, Oregon. I
graduated from Glencoe High School in 1985. I am an early Saturday Academy
alumni (I believe Kirby knows about Saturday Academy).

Since you all are talking about use of computers in teaching children
mathematics, I thought I would mention my own personal experience as a
learner in the early days of microcomputers.

When I was in 7th grade (1979) in Brown Junior High in Hillsboro, I
was in a "talented and gifted" track and was given a semester to do
any science-related project I wanted to do, and then display my work
in science-fair format at the end of the semester. My dad suggested I
learn computer programming, which I originally thought was beyond my
abilities.  He took me to the Byte Shop (anyone remember that store?)
and bought me a book called "BASIC from the Ground Up" by David Ahl.
Then he brought me to his work place (Tektronix, in Beaverton) and let
me use a 4051 microcomputer (green storage tube display, large tape
cassette drive).  I was given no instruction except what was in the
book, and was shown how to turn the computer on, etc. Once I got to
the BASIC prompt I was pretty much on my own.

Except for one thing - I wanted to make a "Star Trek"-like game, and
needed to figure out how to move and rotate the spaceship. My dad took
the time to teach me conversion between polar and cartesian
coordinates, and proper use of sine and cosine. Unlike most of my
peers, I never forgot those math skills. In fact, I recall all through
my years of study on my way to an electrical engineering degree, being
grateful again and again that I actually understood those concepts and
didn't have to keep re-learning them, but could actually apply them in
new situations.

I continued programming in BASIC all through high school. I impressed
my Physics teacher with an animated planetary motion simulation
program written in GBASIC and run on an early IBM PC.

So I consider myself an early success story in computer-based,
independent, non-traditional math learning. I feel a need to "pay it
forward" and help give other youth the experience and advantages I had
when I was young. Ironically, it seems that the huge advances made in
computing and networking can make it harder to use computers as
teaching tools -- the rising generation considers them mostly
entertainment, multimedia, and communication devices. The skills most
often applied to see cool things happen on the computer is to google
and download games, or to search You Tube for movie trailers. When
basic math skills were required to make anything happen on that green
screen, I was motivated to learn those math skills.

On the other hand, of course, those huge advances can be put to
excellent use and mathematics can be used to make things happen that
were not possible in the early 1980s. And, with all of the free
instruction available on the internet now, there's no excuse for
ignorance. But, it's like drinking from the firehose. It still really
helps to have a mentor.

I'm striving to help people to get that same empowered feeling I got
when, as a teenager, I made things happen on the computer and gained
understanding in the process. I've written a beginning Python
programming book (an updated attempt at the "BASIC from the Ground Up"
that got me started), I've taught short, free seminars here in North
Carolina and Virginia, and am doing what I can in my "spare time" to
tutor youth, including my own children.

Best wishes to all you fellow travelers!

David H

> The schools had proved incompetent to do their jobs (educating
> for the future), so the Chief of Police was stepping in (he was
> 2nd generation Chinese immigrant).
> I lectured about this Hillsboro experiment to the London Knowledge
> Lab on my way to the Shuttleworth Foundation meeting with
> Helen King et al, our benevolent dictator, Guido, another member
> of our merry party (Scheme also represented).
> This was a meeting about South Africa, making long term plans even
> then (government officials were part of Mark's entourage).
> >
> > > Are lesson plans and small programs available, for example,
> >
> > Probably. There are well over 100,000 digital learning resources on the
> > Net. You can find some of them on pages linked from
> >
> > http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Open_Education_Resources
> >
> > We will need a substantial number of teachers to review them, compare
> > them, and select those that do the best job making concepts clear in ways
> > that will stay with students.
> The South African model was shaping up to serve auto-didacts.
> Kids who could self teach would stand the best chance.
> The teachers were proving hopeless.  Adult teachers could not be
> expected adapt to these technologies in sufficient time in sufficient
> number.  Those were the facts on the ground.
> It's not like anyone wanted it to be this way.  One had to make the
> best of a bad situation.
> >
> > > where students could write and
> > > "drop in" a script that includes integers and the output would not only
> > > calculate it, but see the relevance of it in a real world situation?
> >
> > There are many ways to do that. One of the weirder ones is my Turtle Art
> > Turing Machine for addition. ^_^
> >
> > http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Activities/TurtleArt/Tutorials/Turtle_Art_Turing_Machine
> >
> > More directly to your needs, Pippy is a Sugar activity that shows a number
> > of Python examples that students can edit. For example,
> >
> > Fibonacci
> > a, b = 0, 1
> > while b< 1001:
> >     print b,
> >     a, b = b, a+b
> >
> > Changing the 0, 1 in the first line changes this from a generator of
> > Fibonacci numbers to a generator of the related Lucas numbers. There is a
> > Pascal's Triangle program. Plotted mod 2, it reveals a Sierpinski fractal.
> "Generator" also has a technical meaning in Python, such that one
> might actually write a Fibonacci generator (of the GeneratorType).
> >
> > Relevant Python resources include NumPy and PyGame.
> >
> > > Or, perhaps, the program controls a "wheelchair" robot and students would
> > > write scripts to drive the robot at a certain speed considering the slope
> > > of a ramp?
> >
> >  See the Etoys tutorial challenge for programming a "car", and the robot
> > program in Uruguay with robots controlled by Sugar software.
> Alan Kay was at that Shuttleworth meeting in Kensington.  I'm sure
> there've been many follow-up meetings which I've not been privy to, plus
> I've continued to meet with Oregon-based colleagues.
> I also work with an outfit in Sonoma County, where Python is concerned.
> >
> > http://www.flickr.com/photos/christophd/4827926508/
> > XO turned into a robot thanks to the Butiá project
> >
> > > As you can see, I am a novice, but I see great potential and am willing to
> > > learn.
> >
> > Delighted to meet you.
> >
> Ed writes a lot of good posts on many a math-related list.  I recommend paying
> attention to his thinking (I know I do).
> Kirby
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