As a former computer scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a National Nuclear Security Administration research and development laboratory, UNO computer science professor Victor Winter is accustomed to high-level concepts.
But it was some low-level play — his children building with Lego blocks on the floor of his home office — that led to one of the more innovative ideas to come out of UNO in recent years.
Winter at the time was ruminating on the best approach to make computer science engaging and meaningful to middle schoolers. He was preparing to teach them computer coding for the first time as part of the College of Information Science & Technology’s summer Techademy program.
“My son and my daughter were building Lego stuff on the floor,” Winter says, “and they kept handing up stuff to me saying, ‘Hey, Dad, code this.’”
It was the beginning of Bricklayer, a unique software program that uses coding, mathematics and art to teach computational, quantitative and visual-spatial skills to a wide range of students — from elementary school through college.
And it’s fun.
“I figured it was a cool thing for my kids to see me at work, because they got to see that, ‘Hey, Dad is playing with Lego. Computer science is cool,’” Winter says.
Bricklayer lets students write code to create 2D and 3D artifacts that can be viewed and interacted with using various third-party software, including Lego Digital Designer, Minecraft and 3D Builder.
“Bricklayer is unique in the strength of its integration of math, art and computer science concepts into one learning environment,” Winter says.
It’s also scalable for different age groups and learning abilities — what Winter calls “a low threshold, infinite ceiling system.” Writing a Bricklayer program to create simple Lego artifacts is relatively straightforward. However, more complex code can be written to create intricate artifacts. To help students develop the skills to create such artifacts, Winter continues to refine and add tools (e.g., interactive web apps) to the Bricklayer ecosystem.
“My goal is to leverage tech to the fullest,” says Winter, who has taught at UNO for nearly two decades. “After all, I am a computer scientist, so I have the right background to build these things.”
The program caught the attention of UNO mathematics associate professor Betty Love. In the summer of 2015, she attended a “Coffee and Code” presentation that Winter was giving at Aromas in Benson, sponsored by the AIM Institute.
“I had never been to one before, so it was really just a fluke,” Love says. “After hearing the presentation, I thought, ‘This is fabulous. This is what I was looking for.’”
Love is passionate about getting students more engaged with math and lessening fears associated with the subject. “And this was perfect for that,” she says. She was so impressed that after the presentation, she met with Winter and told him, “I think we should be teaching this instead of math in elementary schools.”
“Fundamentally, I think all people like to create, and Bricklayer allows students to imagine what they would like to create and then figure out how to do it,” Love says. “There’s this creative piece and then this puzzle piece.”
Winter had found that students in his upper-level Principles of Programming Languages class at UNO were often lacking a solid theoretical foundation in the science of programming as well as appropriate fluency in discrete math, the concepts of which form a cornerstone of advanced computational thinking.
“The students in the class didn’t understand programs as well as they should,” he says. “They never really polished their code. When it (their program) passed the test, they called it a day.”
He likened that mindset to a political speech writer who delivers the first draft of the speech that passes the spellchecker. Creating a good speech typically requires numerous revisions. Wordsmithing a speech is an involved process that entails rewording as well as moving, removing and adjusting paragraphs and sentences. The writer needs to understand the message the speech intends to deliver, as well as the rules of grammar.
Similar concepts are at play when writing software.
“If you don’t understand the meaning of the code or the rules by which your code can be manipulated,” Winter says, “you are going to shy away from ‘wordsmithing’ your code. If you shy away from such activities, you never get your good speech or your good computer software.
“For me, that was a passionate issue, because I came from Sandia Labs. The Pentagon, back in the ‘90s, was saying that World War III will be won or lost in cyberspace. If that was true then, it’s even more true now. For me, it really is ‘hair on fire, this is my path’ – understanding software is very important.”
Helping the ‘Math-Traumatized’
Love was equally passionate about what this program could do for college math students, especially those non-math majors who needed a general math class to graduate. Many of these students had been turned off to math in grade school.
An interdisciplinary team of UNO faculty from computer science, mathematics and education was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to further explore the use of Bricklayer with this population. Winter taught the first pilot course – Introduction to Mathematical and Computational Thinking – to 12 students last spring. Winter and Love each taught a section of the course last fall, with a total of 60 students enrolled. Two sections are being offered this spring and both are at capacity, with 40 students enrolled in each. Previously, the only general-education math option was college algebra.
“I’ve had students tell me, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve really understood math,’ or ‘I never knew math could be like this,’” Love says. “Really, math is about problem-solving and finding patterns, and using patterns to make things easier for you.” Those skills are honed in Bricklayer.
“They’re actually writing programs to generate visual artifacts. And it’s so much fun, because they have this innate creativity and, for the most part, they have never been able to use it in a math class.”
Students have presented their artwork on campus. Winter and Love are analyzing the results of the course.
In addition, about 90 area elementary and middle schools have incorporated Bricklayer into their curriculum to some extent, and it’s incorporated into Charlie Cuddy’s Bryan High School math class.
“The results can perhaps best be described as an agile classroom where student behavior more closely resembles that of employees at a tech startup than that of a traditional classroom,” Cuddy writes in a review of the program.
Winter looks to continue to not only enhance the program — he describes himself as an avid tinkerer — but make the program available to more schools and teachers.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that goes beyond helping my friends and neighbors,” Winter says. “I’ve always wanted to do more.”
See the article and more at the UNO Alumni Magazine website.