Helping youth succeed in science – Part 6: Using mathematics and computational thinking

Successful scientists use mathematics and computational thinking.

In 2011, the National Research Council released a report, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are working to increase science literacy through the inclusion of the Scientific and Engineering Practices described in the framework – and you can too!

The Scientific and Engineering Practices outlines eight simple but powerful practices about how to engage youth in science and engineering to increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy. The Practices are:

Mathematics is the language of science; without an understanding of mathematics, we are unable to recognize patterns around us, let alone gain insight and understanding of our world. Unfortunately, mathematics is often taught without a connection to our world or to reality, but numbers that have to do with our own observations and investigations can lead us to the real world. These numbers, the raw data of our experiments, have to be “crunched,” as we say, to reveal their secrets. This often involves simple math, like calculating averages, combined with charts and graphs, etc., to identify significant features and patterns. But to go a step further to address potential sources of error and the degree of certainty, there may be some higher math as well. Mathematics is simply a way of thinking based on numbers and patterns, which is a whole lot more precise than just noting that “A” was bigger than “B;” mathematics can tell us how much bigger (if we measure and calculate).

You can help youth engage in mathematics and computational thinking through conversations that guide youth through an analysis of their observations including helping them see potential patterns resulting in a deeper understanding of the world. For example, during the 2015 summer, youth in the Alpena Rusty Raider 4-H ROV club engaged in an engineering design challenge culminating in participation in the MATE Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Competition. Youth designed and built an underwater ROV using mathematics throughout the development process. Basic math along with spatial and computational thinking were used to envision the frame of the ROV.

During the building process, youth were measuring, cutting and “squaring” the frame of their ROV. Advanced math, cause and effect, and computational thinking were all integral in determining optimal thruster placement, minimal wiring distance and the “load” of the electrical system to ensure the ROV did not exceed the competition amperage limits.

While preparing for the competition, the Rusty Raider 4- H leader and elementary school teacher used the designing and building of underwater ROVs as a means to fully engage his class in STEM. Youth have used the ROVs they designed to do real research; they have then crunched real data revolving around issues like zebra mussels, rusty crayfish and lake trout. In the process, they have become comfortable using mathematics and computational thinking.

Youth gather around to assist in building an underwater ROV.

You too can engage youth in mathematical and computational thinking through hands-on, experiential activities and discussions. Many everyday situations can be tweaked to involve observations and math: “I don’t want to feed the dog right now” can lead to questioning how much food does my dog eat in a month? What is the cost? Or, “Man it’s cold outside; I know it’s colder than last winter” can suggest questions like how cold is it, and more precisely, the maximum and minimum temperatures each day for any given month or for the whole winter?

When answering questions like these, you have to use math and computational thinking. Computational thinking is a problem-solving process that includes logically ordering and analyzing data and creating solutions using a series of ordered steps. What would I need to do to find out how much food my dog eats? Or how much it costs? Or to compare winter temperatures? Youth who develop computational thinking skills can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as between school and life outside of the classroom.

Sir William Lawrence Bragg, a British physicist, explained, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Helping youth understand their world through the lens of mathematics and computational thinking enables them to see their world in new ways.

This is Part 6 of a series of articles that will explore a variety of ways you can help youth engage in Scientific and Engineering Practices. Although the series will address individual practices, it is important to remember that as a whole they increase STEM literacy and like science itself, the individual practices do not function in a vacuum, but are intertwined with STEM Exploration. To learn more about the Scientific and Engineering Practices, you can download a free copy of “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” or Appendix F of the Next Generation Science Standards.

To learn more about helping youth succeed in science, read the other articles in this series listed below and explore the MSU Extension Science and Technology website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.