One of my goals is to include some Python programming as part of all of my courses this year, and to do so in a way that isn’t just wedging it in where it doesn’t belong. We don’t have a formal programming class in our school given our size, but I have heard that students are interested in the broad topic of programming, and know that they could benefit. So, I am finding times to get students playing around with it as a tool.

The perfect opportunity in Algebra 2 today came in evaluating algebraic expressions. I don’t like reviewing the topic, at least haven’t in the past, because in most cases the students remember enough of it to think that they know how to do it, but have forgotten all the nasty bits about order of operations, distributing negative signs, and the infamous -5^2 = 25 when evaluating -a^2 at a = -5. They typically have great interactions reminding each other of the rules, but by the time they get to me in Algebra 2, the idea is no longer fresh. The lesson then ends up being the math lesson equivalent of an air freshener – temporary and stale.

Following my goal, I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to introduce the topic first as a programming topic, and then use the computer as a resource for the students to check their arithmetic. We started the class with some basic order of operations questions:

This was followed by pasting the following into a Python interpreter as everyone was watching:

print “Answers to the Warm-Up Questions:”

print (8*3 – 2*4)

print (27 + 18/9 – 3**2+1)

print (40 + 24)/8 – (2**3+1)

This was following a suggestion from Kevin Krenz to demonstrate the fast way to solve it using the Python interpreter. While they weren’t wildly impressed, they did accept that this was an option for them to check their work in these types of questions, and were up for learning how it worked.

I then showed them how to run a Python file on their Macbooks, which all have at least Python 2.6 running on them in the terminal. I talked about working in the terminal as running around in the basement of their computer – lots of power and hidden secrets there to play around with (or mess up if not careful). After learning to do this, they edited a partially completed Python script which I have posted at Github here.

I really liked what happened afterwards, though it did not feel (at all) like a clean, straightforward way of going over algebraic expressions. It was messy. Different people were at different places during the entire 30 minutes we worked on it, which was much longer than I expected. Quite appropriately though, it slowly came together like writing a program often does. Lots of good discoveries and realizations of simple errors that I didn’t need to force.

Students realized the difference between 2*x and 2x to the computer. They realized quite cleanly that they needed to tell the computer outright that there is multiplication between a coefficient and a variable. They saw this was not the case for -x although they also thought they might need to write it as -1*x. The Python interpreter pointed this out to them immediately. The interpreter didn’t do so well on 4(3 – x) since it considered it a function call, but with some prodding, most students realized it was the same error.

There was enough information in the script for them to figure out how to do exponents, so I was happy not to have to go through that separately. The only really big problem was the fact that Python 2.6 doesn’t have the nice floating point capability for division that 3.2 has. For the first problem, part (a), the answer is 0.5, but Python returns 0 since it assumes integer division with a plain / symbol. I went around to student computers replacing x/y with x*1./y, but this became an opportunity to converse with students about division as multiplication by the multiplicative inverse or reciprocal. Another unintended complication that then resulted in more review of pure mathematical concepts.

With all of this done, the students were then pretty proficient at trying to do the substitution by hand and checking against the answers from the computer. Most caught the serious mistakes without too much input from me – the computer did that work for me.

After finishing problem 1, the students got a big kick out of how I told them to program Problem 2 at the end of the script. They were directly teaching the computer to answer these questions through code. I think they saw that programming really is how you teach a computer to do what you want it to do, and had at least a minimal sense of pride in being able to do so.

One student said this was pretty cool, and compared it to a video game. Another appeared to want to kill me the entire time. They were all pretty patient with the activity though, and trusted that this would make them better at what they needed to learn for my class – probably the most important part to this not leading to a serious case of Thursday afternoon mutiny.

In the grand scheme of technology implementation, this activity was nothing more than using Python to replace a graphing calculator with substitution capability. This type of knowledge, however, is important for doing more substantial applications of computational thinking. I think it’s important to get students to see what it can do before being interested in creating something as simple as ‘Hello world’. That doesn’t seem to interest the vast majority of students. While I did most of the programming for this task, this is a gateway to the students doing more and seeing more down the line. Now that they know how to do the basics of editing and running a program, we will be more successful in doing more sophisticated things later on.

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Thanks for sharing this! I run an after school programming club and the kids are mostly students who definitely struggle with the idea of how the computer ‘understands’ their code. It’s useful to see the first program you’ve asked your students to work on and how much information you gave them. It seems like having it help them with the stuff they’d have to do on their own is a nice hook.