You could say that Concord Consortium’s project Coding with R for Mathematical Modeling (CodeR4MATH) is very sneaky, says Kenia Wiedemann, a postdoctoral researcher on the project. Creative is a different way of describing how CodeR4MATH is getting high school students—especially those who think math and computer science are not for them—coding and creating mathematical models, and enjoying it. “Many students believe computer science is only for nerds,” laughs Wiedemann. She’s certain she can prove them wrong.
But what is so important about computation that students interested in music or biology or a social science should care about it? Computer science, Wiedemann explains, teaches a way of thinking that can provide answers to all sorts of questions related to students’ true interests. They don’t need to love coding or mathematical models, they just need to appreciate its value in getting to the bottom of a problem.
Wiedemann clarifies: “Computational thinking is a way of building algorithms in your head, putting one step after another in logical, reproducible steps, to solve a problem, and not only in mathematics.” Once a student develops the correct sequence of steps, a computer program can execute the solution.
Students who take a computer science class learn computational thinking (CT) skills. But CT is too important to be relegated to computer science class, especially because computer science courses are not offered in all schools, says Wiedemann.
Math class, however, is ubiquitous. High school students have to take math. “CodeR4MATH is attempting to slip computational thinking into math classes using mathematical modeling and coding,” notes Wiedemann. Using the popular programming language R, students who have never written a line of code can learn to solve real-world problems like climate change or a pandemic (and even a zombie attack).
“The project is not trying to teach students how to code. You do not need to be a programmer to go through these activities. But if they also learn a little of coding, I would call that a good byproduct,” says Wiedemann. “It is my hope that if I can encourage students to go through the computational steps to get an answer to a problem, in the process, they are going to realize the value of learning how to code as well.”
The project is currently providing professional development and an extensive Q&A library for CodeR4MATH math teachers who have little or no programming experience. “We tried to think of everything a student might ask when creating the questions and answers,” Wiedemann explains. Several project activities are available as short standalone activities; there are also assessments and tutorials for R.
Wiedemann wants to make sure students who did not have a chance to take a computer science class can still learn critical computational thinking skills. “We’re sneaking in this cool thing,” she says. “And I hope they’ll realize it’s not so bad.”