Programming through Art and Math

Over the summer, Los Altos School District teacher Sheena Vaidyanathan shared the essay below with CSTA’s The Voice about using Khan Academy’s ever evolving and growing computer programming platform with her students.  She also presented at the CSTA conference on July 16, 2013. 

For more about Sheena’s classroom, check out this article with more details. 

Curriculum in Action
Programming through Art and Math
By Sheena Vaidyanathan

Teaching computer science (CS) through art engages students and showcases the creativity behind programming. Connecting programming to math makes CS relevant to the school curriculum and ensures support and funding.

I combined CS with math and art to create a CS course called CSTEM for the Los Altos School District in California. Because CSTEM is a required class, every one of the over 500 sixth graders learns to code as a medium for creating art.

This year, I used the JavaScript implementation of Processing with the Khan Academy IDE. We began with a ‘human computer’ exercise in which students acted out three lines of code to draw a house and then coded the process on the computer.

Students were surprised to see how the code on one side of the IDE translated into a design on the other. Students experimented with Processing functions to add windows, fences, chimneys, and other features to their houses. By the end of the first class, students had learned to use functions to create a variety of shapes. Important learning occurred around syntax, sequencing, and parameters.

Students at this age are just learning to graph coordinates. In the Khan Academy IDE, students can guess numbers for the parameters and then use the sliders to experiment. The program output is updated instantly. This form of playing with the x and y values makes the math exercise relevant and fun. In addition to coordinates, students explored other mathematical concepts, including functions, variables, and geometry. Once I had introduced iteration using the draw function, the students were able to create interactive art based on the mouse position variables.

Many students worked outside of class to create complex works of art through code. Using the cloud-based IDE made it easy for students to log in from home to continue working. To facilitate learning beyond the classroom and to manage a large number of classes, I made extensive use of Edmodo, a moderated online classroom, where I post messages and engage in discussions. Students used the environment to share their work, comment on other projects, and ask questions.

I asked the students what they would say to convince others to learn programming; their answers were inspiring.
• I would tell someone that coding is a type of art. There are no bounds to your creativity and you can create anything you want, it can be easy or hard.
• You should try coding! It’s really fun, but I’m not promising that it will be easy. It’s really useful and teaches patience.
• Coding uses all that I have learned in math and applies it to
the real world.

I have seen the value of connecting programming to both art and math; my students are enthusiastic about programming and my school administration is ready to expand the program. A recent, first-ever district coding competition attracted over 100 participants—and 58% were girls! CSTEM has convinced students in our district that CS can be challenging and fun. Required CS education at this age is both valuable and possible.