Adrienne Unertl, Instructor at Create & Learn
Adrienne Unertl is the 2017 Wyoming Elementary STEM Educator of the Year. In this blog post, she shares her experience with math and computer science.
Growing up, I never saw myself as a mathematician. In fact, for my whole life I’ve had a love/hate relationship with math. I loved to hate math because it was something I never felt I was good at, yet was expected to do. But through computer science, I was able to turn my fear of math into a passion… without even realizing it! Now I’m on a mission to help as many students as I can— particularly girls— engage in STEM so that they will become innovators of their world.
Early Impressions of STEM
From the time I was little, math was something I was told was a part of life. It was unavoidable, but certainly not enjoyable. In order to survive, I was going to have to budget, pay bills and stay out of debt. I would need to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide just in order to get by. But after the basics, I had no desire to learn more about math.
It started when I was young. My father was an engineer, so I grew up knowing math was something I was supposed to do, yet nonverbally, the messaging was “girls don’t do math.” That was okay, I guess, because I wanted to become a Biotechnologist. I still took math classes because I was told they would help me later on, but I never felt like they had meaning. Even when math was integrated into the sciences, I never held it in high regard, just something needed for displaying/explaining experiment results or creating graphs/charts. I was still doing science not math.
Teaching Coding to Kids
My whole life I’ve always enjoyed creating an imaginary world around me through LEGOs and storytelling. While attending a technology conference, I learned about Code.org and Scratch. I realized I could create digital worlds to control and explore. I immediately returned to Clark Elementary School in Evanston, Wyoming, and created an after school club designing and coding digital worlds.
Though I hadn’t been a coder before, coding made sense to me. It was logical, straightforward, helped kids problem solve, and taught them how to break down large problems into smaller manageable chunks. Using Code.org, my students learned about variables and how to use them to write code so that when we wanted to draw bigger shapes with our code, we just increased the variable size. My students had so much fun solving problems through coding.
But even then, I didn’t relate math to computer science. Did my students need to know the angles of a triangle, square, hexagon and circle? Yes! They learned about angles as part of the problems they were solving. Did they learn about regular polygons? Yes! That’s why they used loops to draw their shapes. But I never explicitly said— or even thought — that they were using math when we worked on computer science.
When Mathematics and Coding Collided
When my class of students was accepted into a program affiliated with the University of Wyoming, we started programming LEGO EV3 robots and games with Scratch. I was flabbergasted to learn that the program was funded through a math initiative. Wait…What?! Was math considered computer science?
It was both deflating and liberating at the same time. I was upset because I thought I was giving my students access to a whole new world through programming, and that they were all learning something new. But in reality, they weren’t— they were practicing math. But it was liberating because I could finally see the mathematical connections and realize that I actually was good at math.
Mathematics, Girls, and Middle School
Even more importantly, my female students were good at math and saw themselves that way. I even convinced some of them to continue with robotics in middle school, and we started an all-girls CyberPatriot team. With a persistent gender gap in STEM, it’s especially important that I’m nurturing girls to love math. I don’t want them to have to wait as long as I did to realize that they are meant to succeed in math.
When I looked more closely at the work my students were doing, the connections to math were unavoidable. My students were taught about the quadrants to help place their sprites in the correct (x,y) coordinates in Scratch. This facilitated their understanding of why the center of the stage is the origin and whether their x or y would be positive or negative. They used the circumference of the wheels of their robots to calculate the number of rotations the robot needed to move to travel a certain distance. They ran their robots on different surfaces to understand friction, the power needed to overcome it, and why different values to make the same turns were needed depending on the surface type.
STEM Education: My Epiphany
Coding and robotics are so interesting to me, I wish someone had pointed out the mathematical connection sooner. If I had realized that math could be used to code and make cool creations, maybe I would have been more motivated to be successful in math. Now that I know, when my female students who are awesome programmers say they aren’t good at math, I can remind them of all the things they’ve designed and created, demonstrating just how good at math they are!
Through computer science, I gained a new appreciation for math. I would have never expected that I would say that I’m good at math, but the more I program, the more confident I feel. I advocate teaching computer science and showing the math connections early so that every girl I teach understands they can do math and that they are good at math!