Fun + Math + Programming = Learning

UTEP News Service

iMPaCT-Math is a new approach for introducing students to high school math concepts that playfully engages students with computer programming. iMPaCT-Math, an approximate acronym for “Media Propelled Computational Thinking for Math Classrooms,” has enjoyed initial success in El Paso high schools and continues to be refined by an interdisciplinary team of UTEP faculty members led by Eric Freudenthal, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science. 

The team has ambitious goals, and the signature at the end of Freudenthal’s emails includes its motto: “Imagine if students really learned high school math in high school.”Eric Freudenthal, Ph.D.

Studies have shown that the creation of computer graphics is engaging to students attending programming classes. Freudenthal’s key discovery is that engaging and playful programming activities can be seamlessly integrated into ninth grade Algebra I classrooms in a way that reinforces student learning of essential math concepts, and inadvertently introduces all to programming. 

The activities prepare students to experience algebra’s big ideas as comprehensible simplifications and generalizations of principles they already have discovered and reasoned about. Three high school teachers helped design lesson plans and added some creative spice. Thanks to them, iMPaCT-Math’s programming-based algebra activities that require students to discover properties of Cartesian coordinates and slope are embedded within art projects, mazes and stories about dating.   

Teachers who implemented iMPaCT-Math activities within their classes observed that students were engaged and asked many “why” questions. 

“We’ve seen dramatic things happening,” Freudenthal said. “Students who failed Algebra I multiple times began passing district benchmark exams.”

“(The University of Texas at El Paso) is a fantastic incubator to explore new approaches in education,” he continued. “Math faculty saw the potential value of iMPaCT’s approach – and also knew that it would fail if I didn’t learn a bunch of important ideas about mathematics education.” 

During a three-year period, UTEP math Professor Art Duval, Ph.D., and assistant professors Kien Lim, Ph.D., and Amy Wagler, Ph.D., joined the project. Olga Kosheleva, Ph.D., associate professor of teacher education, has contributed key insights regarding student engagement, and Virgilio Gonzalez, Ph.D., senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering, has constructed simulators of electrical phenomena for iMPaCT that were incorporated into his electrical engineering courses. 

“There’s lots of creative excitement and the team’s creative energy is bigger than the sum of its parts,” Freudenthal said.  

Duval, who has a background in computing, works closely with Freudenthal to develop ideas for activities and write instructor notes on the mathematical concepts they expose. Lim, whose research focus is eliciting analytical engagement from students, refines the activities to ensure that students’ focus is directed toward exploring core mathematical ideas. Lim also has background in teacher education and is substantially responsible for the design of iMPaCT-Math’s professional development workshops for teachers. Wagler is a former high school math teacher with a research focus in statistical analysis. She principally assists the group in the design of effective experimental protocols.

The team’s ultimate goal is to enable students to discover the joy of authentic engagement with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They hope that this engagement will propel students toward success in science and math courses, and ultimately into rewarding careers.  Freudenthal said their sponsors are excited because of the project’s potential to help more students develop mastery of core mathematical ideas necessary to enter the technological work force. 

Freudenthal also is excited that these math lessons disarmingly engage students in discovering his discipline’s compelling and creative core of computational thinking. 

“Too few people, and especially too few women, choose to study computation,” he said. “This shortage is chronic and limits our national productivity. In our pilot study, 25 percent of eligible students whose math classes included programming elected to attend a high school class on programming. Almost 40 percent of those students were female.” 

When describing the potential role of programming in math education, Duval said, “If we give students a fourth way of understanding math (other than graphs, tables and formulas), they can see the bigger picture of math and make it more real.”

iMPaCT-Math is a seedling of the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions headed by UTEP’s Ann Gates, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science. iMPaCT-Math has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as donations from Microsoft Corp., Texas Instruments, and CALCULEX Corp. of Las Cruces, N.M.