Cracking the code

By: Cory Habermehl
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Symposium examines how to teach computer coding to kids

Sam Makosz and Joanna Zambrzycka

Symposium attendees Sam Makosz and Joanna Zambrzycka use miniature robots they built to apply paint to paper during one of the many symposium workshops. The activity is designed to teach primary students the basic concepts of physics, art and math.

Many people use technology – few people create it. George Gadanidis, professor at the Faculty of Education, is doing his best to change that.

Gadanidis has dedicated his career to making math fun and exciting for kids. He also works to teach computer coding – the key to creating a variety of technologies and digital media – to as many people as possible.

Recently, he and some of his colleagues hosted a symposium dedicated to exploring
how coding and mathematics could be coupled to improve teaching and learning of both subjects for students across all grade levels.

“There’s talk of coding all over the place these days, with calls for children to learn it as early as possible,” said Gadanidis. “But it doesn’t appear anywhere in the school curriculum except high school.”

Gadanidis believes the way to make coding more meaningful and introduce it to students as early as possible is by linking it to math, a longstanding subject area in all grades and school curriculums.

He and symposium co-organizers Immaculate Namukasa from Western’s Faculty of Education, Donna Kotsopoulos from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Education and Kamran Sedig from Western’s Faculties of Computer Science and Information & Media Studies set out to organize a symposium with internationally-renowned keynote speakers and hands-on workshops by expert teachers and practitioners to help show the potential of this approach.

“We wanted to showcase what’s being done out there at the moment, so we brought in presenters to show what they’re already doing,” said Namukasa. “Then we invited teachers, graduate students and educators, several of whom had never heard of this, and shared it with them.”

Symposium attendees were impressed.

“It’s all really hands on, and very interesting,” said Sam Maksosz, an occasional teacher with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. “I made a triangle today by using code – it would be great to walk kids through the steps needed to do that and show them something tangible as the result.”

In addition to the hands-on workshops that took place on the first day, the symposium featured two days of working groups specifically for researchers, educators and graduate students in the field of coding, mathematics and curriculum.

The participants found common interests and themes and broke into self-organized groups. They then worked over the two days to produce a paper on their chosen topic. Each of the groups’ papers will be combined into a larger document, with a forward written by Gadanidis and his fellow symposium organizers, who will then work to get the material published in an academic journal.

“Some great minds in coding and math were all here together,” said Gadanidis. “What an opportunity to make something great – this symposium was more than just presenting what’s being done right now – it was about what came out of the weekend, and where we go from here.”

Funding for the study came in the form of grants from the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Western’s Faculty of Education, Western’s Teaching Support Centre and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Symposium website: www.researchideas.ca/coding