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Will teaching kids to code boost math SAT scores?

“Don’t just play on your phone, program it,” said President Obama in a new promotional video aimed to get students to spend an hour writing computer code.

A non-profit group called code.org enlisted Obama and more than a dozen celebrities—including pop singer Shakira, actor Ashton Kutcher, and NBA star Dwight Howard—to convince kids that it’s cool to take a computer science class. Apple stores in Boston and elsewhere offered free coding workshops on Wednesday to promote the effort.

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While all this publicity certainly raises awareness about the need to improve computer literacy in the United States, will an hour of coding actually turn high school students into the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates? Likely not, but it may encourage them to take a programming class in college and have highly in-demand job skills when they graduate.

What’s more, kids who learn certain programming skills in elementary or middle school could improve their scores on standardized math tests. Technology educators are just beginning to learn what kinds of programming languages and school curriculums have a beneficial impact with an aim to get more of these classes into public schools nationwide.

In a recent study, Brigham Young University researchers taught Utah middle schoolers basic programming skills in twice weekly afterschool programs and measured a significant increase in math test scores after a few months. “We saw growth in certain math skills like functions and variables used in algebra,” said Geoffrey Wright, an associate professor in the technology engineering education program at Brigham Young University who conducted the research.

With such promising results, one public junior high school in Utah has decided to work computer programming into the school day as a part of their state’s technology requirement where students also learn basic engineering and software programs such as Adobe Photoshop.

Wright, though, would like to see American schools go further, modeling their curriculums after Great Britain, which will add computer science programming as a core class in 2014 offered along with math, science, and languages in elementary school through high school. “We need to reduce the fear factor of technology and expose kids at young ages, so they grow up with programming and expect to take it yearly,” Wright said.

But making that case in individual states which set their own curriculum standards—often based on getting students to perform well on standardized math and language tests—has been tough. About 90 percent of schools in the U.S. don’t offer programming classes.

“There’s been a long and frustrating history of people trying to prove that programming can teach kids other fundamental skills like problem solving or abstract thinking,” said Emmanuel Schanzer, a former coder for Microsoft Corp. and a doctoral candidate in algebra education at Harvard University. “These high expectations have been met with unsatisfying results in research studies.”

Schanzer helped develop a curriculum called Bootstrap to teach algebraic and geometric principles by writing code for video games to students ages 12 to 16. Seven schools in Massachusetts and dozens more nationwide have incorporated the 20-hour Bootstrap course into their curriculums often in algebra or pre-algebra math classes taken in eighth or ninth grade.

Like Wright, Schanzer has validated his program by seeing how students perform on math tests conducted before and after taking the programming class and comparing these scores to control groups who take other technology electives.

“It’s not enough to just teach kids some programming language and magically expect they’ll make the connection to math skills,” Schanzer said. “Teachers have to point out explicitly how functions taught in programming will be seen again in their math class.” If taught the appropriate computer language with a teacher well-versed in the curriculum, he added, students should be able to use a neurological process called transfer to quickly pick up novel math concepts that overlap with what they learned in programming.

That’s actually more complicated than it sounds, since some computer languages could confuse students with programming codes such as “x=x+1” that go against algebraic concepts dictating that “x=x”. What’s more, high school math teachers often don’t have the skills to teach programming.

Bootstrap’s programming language—developed by Northeastern computer science professor Matthias Felleisen—provides code consistent with solving mathematical equations, and the curriculum can be obtained for free on the nonprofit organization’s website. Schools do, however, have to pay for training workshops for teachers.

Whether programs like Bootstrap work better than other math enrichment programs remains to be seen, Schanzer said. “We have not definitively proven that transfer occurs from learning programming,” he added. “We’ve been working really hard for six years to study this, but we need to conduct research in larger populations of students.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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