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Bootstrap program pulls up Roxbury, Dorchester middle-schoolers

Posted by Roy Greene  May 3, 2011 12:33 PM

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(Photo courtesy of Bootstrap)

Students get individualized help from Bootstrap teachers.

Emma Youndtsmith, a junior at Northeastern University with a minor in computer science, has little in common with middle-school students in Boston.

But as a volunteer for a unique afterschool program that teaches algebra through college-level computer programming, she and middle-schoolers in areas including Roxbury and Dorchester have found common ground.

“It’s inspiring to me, because they are doing some things that I did in freshman year” of college, Youndtsmith said. “It’s amazing to see middle school students doing the same thing.”

In school districts scattered around the country, including Boston, the Bootstrap program is teaching algebra to 11- to 13-year-olds, through college-level computer programming and video-game design. With support from big companies such as Google, Bootstrap partners with Citizen Schools to offer students their first formal dose of algebra, in an engaging and visual way.

Emmanuel Schanzer, the founder of Bootstrap and a former math teacher, said that the primary goal of the program is to give students a firm foundation in algebra by having them produce their own video games. College volunteers, many of them from Northeastern, help to teach the program.

“Boston is the city with the largest concentration of pre-teen functional programmers in the world,” Schanzer said.

Yarian Gomez, a sophomore majoring in computer science at Northeastern, used to tutor college students in computer science. He said that seeing young students master the same skills is impressive.

“Having college students is great,” Schanzer said. “Kids want to work with people they have a connection with. College kids have the ability to walk in and have an immediate connection.”

Schanzer said the fact that many college students are learning the same material makes the learning experience a shared adventure.

The middle school students realize, “‘Oh my God, I am doing the same thing they are doing,’” Schanzer said. “They see they are learning college work.”

Schanzer said the first goal of the program is to expose children to math and computer science, with an eye to inspiring confidence.

“I think a lot of programs talk about inspiring,” he said. “But the real difference is that it’s not abstract. They can say, ‘I went to college and studied computer science. I know what it’s like.’”

The students spend weeks working on what Schanzer called “primitive” games, and then have a chance to present their games at Google, at the end of the program. This year, the presentation is set for May 4 in Cambridge.

“When they are showing off these primitive games, they are proud,” Schanzer said. “Amazing that they get it -- it’s the pride in learning, rather than pride in sexy graphics.”

Schanzer said algebra is a hard concept to master, but is critical to understanding calculus, physics, chemistry and biology.

“By the end of the semester, there will be a bunch of 11-year-old Roxbury students able to define functions,” he said proudly.

Vicki Crosson, manager of all Northeast Bootstrap programs, said the Bootstrap program “reaches all students—those who are behind and ahead. There’s a lot of complicated math.”

At a recent afterschool session at John W. McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, sixth-graders Darren Chantilou and Schiller Toussainc hovered over their computers, watching as their game’s bad guy flashed across the screen.

“I want to study computer science now and make more games!” Chantilou said with a grin. “I like math and computers.”

Schanzer said that he is happy to see students appreciate their work and learn from the program.

“Not one of our students is ever going to raise their hand in algebra and ask why they are learning this, because it’s not abstract anymore,” he said.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Alexandra Legend Siegel, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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