Who says video games are bad for kids?

Through a collaborative effort between several faculty and students in the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, the David O. McKay School of Education and the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, there is evidence that algebra comprehension in junior high and high school students could be enhanced by teaching them to program their own video games.

Using an innovative curriculum called Bootstrap, developed by a Harvard graduate student, the BYU research team implemented the project in various middle and high schools across Utah Valley. The Bootstrap programming language uses algebra to create and animate images.

Robert Lee, a grad student in the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, who is involved in the research, said students used mathematical equations to animate characters and complete goals in their very own computer game.

“[The kids] all use the same basic game, but they choose a unique background and three actors,” he said.

One student chose a forest background with a fairy as her main character. Her next actors were a sparkling sprite and a green frog. In this case, the goal is for the student to move her fairy toward the sprite and stay away from the frog. If the fairy catches the sprite, she gains points. If she touches the frog, she loses points.

“When we get into algebra, we have them find the coordinates of [each character],” Lee said. “Then we ask, ‘Okay, how can you tell if they collide? How can you tell how far apart they are?’ The students then use a right triangle and the Pythagorean theorem.”

Professor Keith Leatham and senior Kiya Hall from the Mathematics Education Department in CPMS aided in the research project by designing a test to assess students’ understanding of basic math skills and concepts.

Before the kids even saw the computer games, they were given a basic skills math test. These tests showed that students lacked many math fundamentals. A control group of kids who used regular algebra curriculum was used to assess the data.

“Basically, there were like two questions they could answer, and the rest of the test was just blank pages,” Hall said. “It was sad because it was a lot of material they should have already known.”

Hall said that after completing the semester long course, students’ scores dramatically improved.

“We saw a huge improvement in their comprehension of order of operations and what a function is. We gave this test to 15- to 17-year-old kids, and they just couldn’t do it at first,” she said. “But then we put them through the program, and they’d end up doing a lot better.”

Hall attributes at least some of the students’ success to involved learning.

“They were engaged in the learning and got to apply their knowledge,” she said. “And it was really fun for them. They were able to see their success in the game and became motivated to learn other things later on.”

Lee’s faculty advisor, professor Geoff Wright from the BYU School of Technology, said the purpose of the project was to improve students’ confidence and ability to solve math problems.

“We used this idea of blended learning,” he said. “We knew intuitively that when kids learn programming, they understand math better. So our hypothesis was we’ll teach kids programming and their mathematical self-efficacy will improve.”

So far, Wright said there is reason to believe that completing the programming course could have potentially improved mathematical comprehension.

“We’ve implemented it on five occasions in junior high and high school classrooms in Utah Valley,” he said. “And the results are interesting. We haven’t gone through all the data so far, but qualitatively, we feel that it is having a positive influence.”