GAINESVILLE, Fla. — High school algebra teacher Bunny McHenryhas her share of students who would rather be doing something else.
There’s the girl who loves to draw. There’s the drummer who can’t sit still long enough to choke down the basics.
It’sthose students McHenry hopes will get help from an experimental newapproach to teach algebra. Known as aesthetic computing, the approachencourages students to express equations as pictures or stories. It waspioneered not by teachers or education experts, but rather by acomputer science professor with a background in simulating complexsystems and a fondness for obtuse terms like “multimodeling.”
McHenry,one of about a dozen teachers who attended a recent workshop at theUniversity of Florida introducing aesthetic computing, was intriguedenough to say she would give it a try with her 11th- and 12th-gradersat North Marion High School in Ocala.
“Hopefully,” she said, “this is something my students can do.”
Teachershave struggled to engage students’ interest in math for as long as mathhas been taught. All the more so, perhaps, with algebra. Gettingalready distracted teenagers to focus on abstract, to-their-eyesuseless, algebraic concepts can be Herculean, teachers say.
Manyeducators have tried, but few have come up with memorable solutions. AsTim Ballas, another teacher at the workshop, said, “I’m looking foranything right now that will give my students insights into conceptsthey will not grasp.”
Paul Fishwick, a UF computer andinformation science engineering professor, has spent nearly a decadecogitating aesthetic computing, a term he coined. He teaches a popularUF undergraduate class on the concept, and his ideas have generated abuzz in academic circles. His course book, a 22-chapter compendium ofhis and others’ thoughts on the concept, will be published by MIT Presslater this year.
Fishwick’s focus has been on university-levelscholarship. But a National Science Foundation grant prompted him torethink aesthetic computing for younger students. Based on his ideas,he and two secondary-school teachers acting as consultants, KatieIndarawis and Jodee Alice Rose, wrote an introductory curriculum formiddle and high school.
The recent workshop was the first introduction of the curriculum to classroom teachers.
“Tobe honest,” Fishwick told the crowd, which also included computerengineering students and UF education professors, “if we can’t interestyou in this, there’s no way we can get it to the students.”
Thebasic idea of aesthetic computing is to make abstract ideas oralgebraic formulas “real” through drawings, sculptures or computergraphics — the way concepts in geometry, for example, can come to lifein the plans for a house. Fishwick has also likened it to how thegraphical user interface changed computer operating systems. When earlyversions first appeared on the Apple Macintosh, the system madelong-opaque operations familiar only to computer experts accessible tolay computer users, popularizing the personal computer.
But justas house plans have dimensions that conform to geometry’s rules, so thealgebraic representations in aesthetic computing are meant to berigorous and accurate.
Indarawis and Rose spent a good part ofthe workshop explaining the method, which involves unpacking atraditional equation into its parts and operations, and thenrepackaging it in very nontraditional form, one that resembles adiagram with circles and lines. The final step is the fun one:depicting the re-formed equation as a piece of art or a short story.
Rosetook the teachers through the process with the equation for a straightline. The final result was “Dorm Life,” a picture that included astereo, lava lamp, power strip, several cords and plugs and anelectricity bill. Each object represented a variable or operation inthe equation, while the bill represented the solution, or result.
Theteachers tried their hand next, seeking to dissect and then depict thePythagorean Theorem. McHenry wound up with a garden. Ballas, whoteaches at a technical high school with a culinary arts program,created a menu. They and the other teachers struggled with reformingthe equations in the aesthetic computing mold, but they seemedintrigued.
Julie Edison, a teacher at Dunnellon High, said highschool students do not get enough hands-on learning. Aestheticcomputing may quench that need, no small achievement for an area thatseems hopelessly abstract.
“This idea gives the students astructure to use with any concept, from the real fundamental all theway through trigonometry and higher math,” she said.
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