How Maths and Computer Science go hand in hand

Zan Nadeem

Zan is the director and founder of Restech, a company who's aimed at bringing robotics to the forefront of education for children of all ages.

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Much of the UK’s teaching community is currently trying to wrap their heads around the new computing curriculum. Bristol Robotics Lab’s Zan Nadeem is keen to stress how important she finds maths as a part of computer science.

An article this week on how bad UK students are at maths compared to Chinese students, to be honest, wasn’t surprising. What makes it an even larger problem is that, with the push towards teaching computer science in schools, this lack of maths knowledge is going to cause problems.

Trying to get students to look at programming problems in a mathematical way and to solve them by using common maths facts is currently a huge challenge – yet this is a vital skill that needs to be taught, from an early age, if the next generation are going to be any good at writing programs.

As an example, if we want to write a program that recognises multiples of 10, most students (aged 12 – 16) get quite confused. The most common suggestion would probably be to go through the set of numbers and check to see if they are equal to 10, 20, 30 etc. But of course, this is by no way the most efficient solution and would take a huge amount of time and unnecessary processing power on large sets of numbers.

Very few would step back and realise that all multiples of 10 can be recognised by dividing the test number by 10: if there is no remainder, it’s a multiple of 10, if there is a remainder, it is not a multiple of 10. Once they understand that finding the instruction in their programming language of choice, which will check for remainders, is usually quite straightforward, then use an if statement to make a decision.

The point is that with all the hype around “coding” and the debates and / or excitement about which programming language and kits to use, it is very easy to get caught up in these things, without first building a solid foundation.

That foundation needs to include a solid understanding of mathematical facts, algebra and maths-based logic. If we continue the push with computing in the curriculum as a standalone subject, with disparate taster sessions of coding in various languages distributed on the web, it isn’t going to work.

We need to put aside coding trends, stop worrying about the latest kit and start with the building blocks. Regardless of which language or platform is being used, the following steps are always necessary when writing a program:

  • What do I want the software / robot / microcontroller board to do and in exactly which order? 
  • How would I write that in simple steps (pseudocode)?
  • Which language am I using?
  • What commands / instructions are available to perform the first step?
  • Write / insert the instructions that I think are correct and test.
  • Does it do the first thing correctly? If yes, then continue with the next step. If not, then find the problem (debug), fix it and then move on.

Once we start thinking like computer scientists - i..e. logically and mathematically, with added common sense – we can start teaching computer science.

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