Winning the battle over Python programming

Two stories to share after this week’s activities with students about programming. I have posted previously about my interest in making Python a fundamental part of my classes this year, and so I am finding ways to include it when it makes sense to do so.

I have a couple of students that are bridging the gap between Algebra 2 and Precalculus with an independent study that I get to design. The tentative title of the course for their transcript is ‘Fundamentals of Mathematical Thinking’ and the overall goal is to get these students a chance to develop their fundamental skills to be successful in later classes. I see it as an opportunity to really dig in to some cool mathematical ideas and get them to, well, dig into the fundamentals of mathematical thinking. I don’t plan too much emphasis on the algorithms (though we will spend some time working on skills in algebra, polynomial manipulation, functions, and other crucial topics where they are weak). Looking at a situation, exploring the way different variables might be used to model that situation, and then really digging in to abstract the variables into a model.

We are starting with what I think is the most fundamental application of this: sequences and series. Even simpler, the first task I gave the students was to look at the number of bricks in the rows of a triangular tower and use Python to add up the bricks in each row. This started as a couple of exercises getting to know Python’s syntax. They are then taking programs I wrote to model this problem and adjusting them to find other sums, including the sum of even and odd numbers. One student that completed this task was intrigued that the sum of the latter consisted of perfect squares, but we didn’t explore it any further at this point.

I then gave this student a bunch of sequences. His task was simple: model each one in Python and generate the given terms. This is a standard exercise for Algebra & Precalc students by hand, but I figured that if he could do this with Python, clearly he was able to figure out the pattern. I showed him how to write fractions using string concatenation (e.g. 1/3 = 1 + “/” + 3) which enabled him to develop the harmonic series. Today he figured out Fibonacci and a couple other new ones. It was really fascinating to see him mess around think deeply about the patterns associated with each one. I did tap him slightly in the right direction with Fibonacci, but I have otherwise been hands off. I am also having him write about his work to give him opportunities to work on his writing too. When he feels comfortable sharing it (and I have already warned him that this is the plan), I will post links to his work here.

The other new thing was in Calculus. I have shortened my review of Pre-Calculus concepts substantially, and have made the first unit a survey of limits, rate of change, and definite integrals. Most of this has required technology to explore local linearity and difference quotients. On Thursday, I introduced using rectangular sums to find area – they were otherwise stuck on counting boxes, and I could tell they felt it was like baby math. They really didn’t know any other way.

In showing them rectangular sums, we had some pretty good discussions about overestimating and underestimating. The students had conversations about how rough the approximation with only 3 – 5 rectangles gave for area under a parabola. A couple of them figured out how to use more rectangles. I told them I was going to write a program to do this while they were sitting and working. I created this program and talked them through how it works. They thought it was too complicated to be worth the time, but I think they did understand the basic idea. I then changed the value of N and asked them what they thought that meant. They got it right the first time. I then pushed the value to higher and higher values of N and they immediately saw that it was approaching a limit. Game, set, match.

Today I had the AP students together working on another definite integral activity that focused on the trapezoidal rule. I showed them the code again and gave them the line that calculates area. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for them to work their way to adjusting the program to work for the Trapezoidal rule. We ran out of time to discuss comparisons between the two programs, but they stayed late after class and into their lunch getting it working on their own computers and playing a bit. Here is what we came up with.

The big battle I see is two-fold.

  • Help students not be intimidated by the idea of writing a program to do repetitive calculations.
  • Give students opportunities to see it as necessary and productive to use a computer to solve a problem.

Sometimes these battles are the same, other times they are different. By using the built-in version of Python on their Macs, I have already started seeing them run commands and use text editors to create scripts without too much trouble. That’s the first battle. My plan is to give lots of examples supporting the second one in the beginning, and slowly push the burden of writing these programs on to the students as time goes by and they become more comfortable with the idea. So far I am feeling pretty good about it – stay tuned.


Filed under algebra 2, calculus, programming, teaching stories

3 responses to “Winning the battle over Python programming

  1. Evan,
    Did you know that python has a fraction library?

    • I did not – this is why I continue to be amazed by Python.

      Is there a library that will generate random integers or irrational decimals and place them into text?

      The more I think about it, I see the need for randomization to be written in from the beginning. I want to be able to write questions like “What is the slope of a line passing through (#,#) and (#,@).” or “Convert @ meters per second into miles per hour” where # is replaced by an integer, and @ is replaced by a nasty decimal. This is the one thing I am figuring I need to write myself for my randomized problem generator for reassessments. I have been able to use string substitution, but I lack a clean way to do it so far, because some questions use different quantities of random numbers than others.

      I am sure there is an easy way to do this, but I just haven’t found it yet.

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