'Aesthetic computing' turns algebra into art; teachers intrigued

09/29/05

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- High school algebra teacher Bunny McHenry has her share of students who would rather be doing something else.

There's the girl who loves to draw. There's the drummer who can't sit still long enough to choke down the basics.

It's those students McHenry hopes will get help from an experimental new approach to teach algebra. Known as aesthetic computing, the approach encourages students to express equations as pictures or stories. It was pioneered not by teachers or education experts, but rather by a computer science professor with a background in simulating complex systems and a fondness for obtuse terms like "multimodeling."

McHenry, one of about a dozen teachers who attended a recent workshop at the University of Florida introducing aesthetic computing, was intrigued enough to say she would give it a try with her 11th- and 12th-graders at North Marion High School in Ocala.

"Hopefully," she said, "this is something my students can do."

Teachers have struggled to engage students' interest in math for as long as math has been taught. All the more so, perhaps, with algebra. Getting already distracted teenagers to focus on abstract, to-their-eyes useless, algebraic concepts can be Herculean, teachers say.

Many educators have tried, but few have come up with memorable solutions. As Tim Ballas, another teacher at the workshop, said, "I'm looking for anything right now that will give my students insights into concepts they will not grasp."

Paul Fishwick, a UF computer and information science engineering professor, has spent nearly a decade cogitating aesthetic computing, a term he coined. He teaches a popular UF undergraduate class on the concept, and his ideas have generated a buzz in academic circles. His course book, a 22-chapter compendium of his and others' thoughts on the concept, will be published by MIT Press later this year.

Fishwick's focus has been on university-level scholarship. But a National Science Foundation grant prompted him to rethink aesthetic computing for younger students. Based on his ideas, he and two secondary-school teachers acting as consultants, Katie Indarawis and Jodee Alice Rose, wrote an introductory curriculum for middle and high school.

The recent workshop was the first introduction of the curriculum to classroom teachers.

"To be honest," Fishwick told the crowd, which also included computer engineering students and UF education professors, "if we can't interest you in this, there's no way we can get it to the students."

The basic idea of aesthetic computing is to make abstract ideas or algebraic formulas "real" through drawings, sculptures or computer graphics -- the way concepts in geometry, for example, can come to life in the plans for a house. Fishwick has also likened it to how the graphical user interface changed computer operating systems. When early versions first appeared on the Apple Macintosh, the system made long-opaque operations familiar only to computer experts accessible to lay computer users, popularizing the personal computer.

But just as house plans have dimensions that conform to geometry's rules, so the algebraic representations in aesthetic computing are meant to be rigorous and accurate.

Indarawis and Rose spent a good part of the workshop explaining the method, which involves unpacking a traditional equation into its parts and operations, and then repackaging it in very nontraditional form, one that resembles a diagram with circles and lines. The final step is the fun one: depicting the re-formed equation as a piece of art or a short story.

Rose took the teachers through the process with the equation for a straight line. The final result was "Dorm Life," a picture that included a stereo, lava lamp, power strip, several cords and plugs and an electricity bill. Each object represented a variable or operation in the equation, while the bill represented the solution, or result.

The teachers tried their hand next, seeking to dissect and then depict the Pythagorean Theorem. McHenry wound up with a garden. Ballas, who teaches at a technical high school with a culinary arts program, created a menu. They and the other teachers struggled with reforming the equations in the aesthetic computing mold, but they seemed intrigued.

Julie Edison, a teacher at Dunnellon High, said high school students do not get enough hands-on learning. Aesthetic computing may quench that need, no small achievement for an area that seems hopelessly abstract.

"This idea gives the students a structure to use with any concept, from the real fundamental all the way through trigonometry and higher math," she said.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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