Often as adults, we typically fall into two camps - those who think they are good at math and they who think they aren’t good at math. Usually, our confidence or anxiety began to develop in elementary, middle or high school and has stuck with us throughout our lives. While we may not know the exact point that we either leaned into math or moved away from it, the reality is that eventually our minds become fixed to this perception.
Regardless of how we we feel about math, we can all agree that being comfortable with the subject is important. In fact, research shows that mathematics is one of the key building blocks for future success
. This is one of the reasons that we start teaching kids about numbers as early as possible. From there, we progress through addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. For those who really appreciate the subject, they can go on to algebra, geometry, calculus, and differential equations.
While, these classes historically been what educators and parents have used to teach mathematics, perhaps it’s time to think about another lever that we can utilize to make sure kids develop these important schools.
Given the ubiquitous nature of technology, this discipline should be included because of the many ways it can develop and reinforce math learning.
1. Develops number sense
Whether it’s having kids do simple math problems or more complicated ones, number sense is crucial to understanding how the world works. Even if one doesn’t go into a field that uses math on a daily basis, there are life skills that are hard to understand without number sense. For example, it’s hard to make and stick to a budget without understanding numbers.
However, many of the problems that kids are asked to develop number sense with may not represent the most relevant topics and therefore can leave them without the real world examples needed to maintain topic interest. For example, if train A is traveling 50mph towards train B and train B is traveling 70mph towards train A. If these trains are 300 miles apart, how long will it take for the trains to meet up.
If you are familiar with this problem, you know that the relative speed of the two trains is 120mph. Since the distance the trains have to cover is 300 miles, that means 300miles/120mph = 2.5 hours.
Unfortunately, two trains traveling towards each other may only be relevant for those who live in an urban population or those who are watching an Action movie with a runaway freight train. On the other hand, if students are building two robots whose speed can be calculated that they can place a fixed distance apart, then they can begin to hypothesize how long it would take for the crash to occur.
Not only can they see with their own eyes, how long it would take but they can also iterate the speed and distance impart to solidify their understanding of relative motion.
Once they do this exercise a number of times, they will be much more comfortable with relative motion and distance. All throughout technology projects, there is a need to incorporate numbers. This repeated practice helps students develop the number sense they need to not only build their projects but also begins to crystalize the utility of these skills throughout their lives.
Whether it’s calculating the impact of an interest rate change on their home borrowing costs or understanding how management fees change the return on their financial investments, number sense is very important and building technology projects is one of the best ways to develop this skill.
2. Improves logic skills
In technology, the reality is that we are developing a method for a machine to execute a task. This means that we need to translate how that task is normally done into a very specific set of instructions. Often when humans perform a task, they interpret the intent and can often achieve an outcome even when the directions are not very clear.
When building software or robots, it’s not that easy. As a result, the developer or engineer must be very precise when developing instructions. Whether using conditional statements or loops, she must clearly define what needs to happen when.
Typically, the set of instructions initially developed doesn’t quite function as intended. When this occurs, she must go back and check her assumptions and instructions when compared to the expected outcome.
Over time, these skills of translating instructions becomes easier. In the process, her logic improves because the technology analyzes and executes exactly what it has been told.
Logic skills improve further when we go beyond the initial task to incorporate ways in which the user does not provide the inputs as expected. For these edge cases, she must revisit her instructions to better capture a wider set of user inputs so that the task can be completed as expected.
3. Teaches Iteration
Find me a developer or engineer who has gotten the solution perfectly right the first time and I can guarantee that their user base is small or the problem doesn’t exist. In the real world, building solutions using technology is an iterative process.
You build, test and iterate based on the feedback received. Eventually, users begin to confirm that the solution is useful based on how they utilize the product or the service. It is usually doing this phase of development that even more bugs and issues pop up.
While some may consider become frustrated by this process, it helps to develop a good deal of grit and resilience. By learning what users truly desire from a product or service and developing the solution, one can see not only the holes in what they have built but also can begin to see what happens when cumulative gains are constructed over time.
Sometimes, this will mean scrapping entire portions of the code base and other times, it will mean that a previously unconsidered user path must now be accounted for.
In both scenarios, the creative problem solver does not become complacent with what she has built. Instead, there is a constant focus on iterating and improving the solution to deliver better value to the end user.
Given the ever changing nature of technology and the rapidly evolving economy, this iteration is not only helpful in improving math skills but more broadly in life itself.
4. Real world examples
Building a video game or modeling a skyscraper help students to understand how math is an integral piece of technology.
From using conditional statements and loops to determine how characters will progress through virtual worlds or using length, width and height dimensions to develop a scale model of their favorite skyscraper, math plays a starring role.
Instead of learning mathematical concepts and then using them later, technology building projects enable students to put math to use on an ongoing basis. However, they aren’t doing problem sets to see how many times they can add numbers in a different way.
For these use cases, they are using math to build something that they find interesting. The opportunity to practice their math skills with real world examples is extremely valuable and answers the question many math students have asked since the beginning of time, “when am I ever going to use this?”.
By affirmatively answering this question early and often within the realm of technology building, students can develop the motivation to continue down the path of learning math or for those who are deficient; they can refocus to improve their skills.
While initial projects may be developed for a small sample size, technology has an amazing ability to scale up to much larger audiences.
During the initial development phase, algorithms may only be stress tested individually or in a small group. Over time, as a mobile application or website gets traction, additional information on user behavior is learned.
At this point is when developers and engineers really are able to internalize probability. For most of their users, the software will work exactly as intended. However, for a minority of users, the technology will break. Depending on the frequency and impact, builders of technology must decide do I modify the code base to account for this edge case or do I accept the potential for failure.
In some cases, they may decide that it’s not worth it to fix the issue because of the time required and they will simply accept the technical debt. In other cases, they may decide that even if the issue occurs infrequently, it may impact a core element of the product or service and therefore must be fixed.
Beyond this, they may find that while initial it was a minority of users, as the number of users grows; the issue may begin to create larger downstream issues.
Overall, the lesson remains the same. Building with technology is not always going to 100% model every available user and scenario. For the cases which result in adverse behavior, an analysis must be done to determine the probability of occurrence along with the effort required to fix. When the probability increases and the severity of the occurrence grows, it is typically a good time to resolve some of the technical debt that has accumulated.
While there are many benefits to learning to build with technology, one of the most compelling is the ways in which it improves your math skills. Math skills are foundational to several different aspects of life. So, even if your kids are already learning mathematics in school, the applied nature of technology building will help take their developing skills to the next level.