17 March 2005

Maths, not a foreign Language

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Europe is taking action against the increasing lack of interest in maths and the drop in scientific university students. This is being done by the creation of a new international language for children

Europe is taking action against the increasing lack of interest in maths and the drop in scientific university students. This is being done by the creation of a new international language for children. ‘WebLabs’, the name of the project behind this new language, makes maths fun by avoiding complex mathematical and scientific formulas while simultaneously improving teamwork skills and encouraging a problem-solving attitude in children.

William and Peter are two 14 year-olds who have a common interest in maths. Although they both attend different schools their fascination with maths has led them to meet as they are both volunteering to trial WebLabs at the Institute of Education in the University of London.

WebLabs is a relatively new programme, supported by the EU, to find new ways to represent mathematical concepts that are simpler than traditional algebra, and is closer to children’s natural interests. WebLabs is exploring the hypothesis that the complexity of mathematical and scientific ideas – and the difficulties students have with them – is due to the representational infrastructure with which they are expressed. The symbols traditionally used to express mathematical ideas, and the rules for transforming them, are an essential part of what it means to think mathematically. WebLabs research is asking whether these representations are unique, or whether it is possible to design a system where students express, share and contrast their mathematical ideas in novel ways.

As a result, the project’s researchers have developed a new computer tool called ToonTalk. This is a computer game, programming environment and a language all in one. Whereas in most languages, programming means writing text (code) in highly structured syntax, ToonTalk programmes take the form of animated cartoon robots - ToonTalk is so called because one is “talking” with cartoons. Pupils lead the robot through the steps of a task it is required to perform which the robot then carries out.

One task might be creating a model that represents a collision of objects that the child has watched in real life. Children will first make predictions about the behaviour of colliding objects in specific circumstances and study corresponding video clips of real world collisions. They can then programme models on the computer to copy, on the screen, the real collision. They will then test and check their models by running them on the computer.

To do all this, they have at their disposal a set of pictures and sounds, mathematical functions, and controls for various properties of the programming environment, and a ‘toolbox’ of various objects – all built into ToonTalk. As well as the robots, which represent programmes, there are birds for message sending, nests for message receiving, scales for comparisons, trucks for processes, and bombs for process termination. Children can directly manipulate these objects using a virtual ‘hand’, or with tools such as the bicycle pump for changing object size, magic wand for copying, or vacuum cleaner for cutting, pasting and erasing.

WebLabs also integrates a web-based collaboration system, called WebReports, which allows students to share their models with others. This allows children to comment on, rebuild and study others’ models, which encourages threads of discussion and therefore helps to develop international communication.

William and Peter, for example, wrote an online report two days ago using a visual online editor and, most importantly, they uploaded their Working ToonTalks model as a hyperlink displayed as an image. They also challenged the other students of the community to find out what process lays behind the robot performance.

So far, only Rita, 14, a high-school student from Lisbon, Portugal, has viewed the report online and has clicked the ToonTalk picture to automatically download it and open the ToonTalk project on her computer. She has decided to take up the challenge. She has written her ideas using the commenting function and she has also found another way to achieve the same action. She issues a new challenge. Her comment appears at the bottom of the WebReport page. William and Peter will probably reply, as well as other members of the community. This will create threads of discussion similar to newsgroups.

Fighting frustration towards maths

These discussions are crucial as they spur children to try and find a new language for talking about mathematics. By describing simply a robot’s actions through words and figures, they grasp deep mathematical ideas without the need to be fluent in algebraic symbolism. Participants in the WebLabs community are starting to share the meaning of ToonTalk robots as representations of mathematical entities.

Others also appear to reap the benefits of WebLabs. First of all, it is a great tool for preventing the feeling of frustration that pupils experience towards maths in the early school years, which may develop in future dislike. ToonTalk may encourage more pupils to study maths and science at university. As a by-product, ToonTalk stimulates team working from a young age, and on an international level, which the European IST initiative is aiming to achieve.

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