Tempe Library Spring Results: Algorithms

As described in an earlier post, the context version of our three games was tested with three groups in Arizona. In this post, we report on the results for our first game about algorithms as experienced at the Tempe Library.

Tempe Library

There’s excited chatter in the room as the game is introduced. Keeping the age of our participants in mind, a cat soft toy has been included in the session. A facilitator ask the girls if they know what an algorithm is, or if they have heard the term before. Our fifth graders have heard of it but are not very sure of its exact meaning. They say algorithms are for making lists. We tell them it is a good definition and that there is a short worksheet to show us that they already know a lot about algorithms and what they can do. The girls finish the questions before the allotted 15 minutes is up.

Before moving on to level one of the game, the group recaps what algorithms are. There is a range of very good answers from the girls, including giving specific directions and making list of instructions.

The girls divide into two teams of three each. The team writing instructions to arrange the cat toys finish early, as expected. Upon reviewing their work, several ambiguities are pointed out, which the team discusses.

Meanwhile, the team working on the map are having some trouble deciding how to provide directions. They are not aware of the coordinate grid system and have labelled sides of the grid as up, down, right, and left. They use the crossword system to give directions – go 8 up, and then 4 left. They don’t like the fact that they have to visit all three houses but have included “knock on the door” in their instructions. They suggest some more detailed instructions and one girl gives a really detailed account that includes wiping the knife and throwing it in the sink.

Upon swapping directions, Team 1 immediately realizes the instructions they are trying to follow do not indicate where to start. Team 2 makes the change.

Team 2 arranges the cat toys perfectly, then kill time by drawing cat doodles on the board.

As team 1 tries to follow the map directions, they end up arguing about how to follow the directions; the facilitators offer to explain how the grid system works.

The next part of the game is played in the following session, which provides a great opportunity to recap what algorithms are and discuss some of the ways to write more effective algorithms. The teams this week are smaller but we still had enough for two.

Team 1 decorates their crate and works on their algorithm to describe the process. The girls decide that one of them will write the algorithm and the other will test it. The writer is very detailed in her writing, paying careful attention to the choice of each word.

Team 2 is working on the algorithm for finding the cat.

Team 1 will have to watch Team 2 as they perform the crate decoration algorithm. They are cautioned not to try and correct the other team while they work, but to make sure they pay attention to what they need to change if they need to make adjustments to the algorithm. It turns out that Team 2 struggles to understand some of the instructions, even after they are updated, which frustrates Team 1.

After nearly getting it right, the teams switch due to time constraints. Team 1 is able to perform the first few instructions of Team 2 well. Some confusions occur in the measurement of the steps. What Team 2 considered ‘large’ was much bigger than what Team 1 thought. The girl acting out the instructions gets stuck at the wall and pretends she is a video game character who can’t get past the wall. She finally tries again using larger steps.

We return to the room and discuss as a group which aspects of each algorithm were successful and which were difficult.

Overall, this is a very young and playful group. They take the games seriously although they have not yet been introduced to the required math concepts. The short quiz worked well for this session, which leads us to wonder whether we can shorten the remaining assessments without losing coverage of the concepts.

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