Math Matters

Atari Founder to Educators: Find a Better Way

by Elaine J. Lambert, special assistant to the president for creative development and public relations.

What do you do when you discover the founder of Atari is following you on social media? 

First, you double-check to be sure. Is it really the same Nolan Bushnell who launched the home video game industry? Who first hired Steve Jobs? Who created the Chuck E. Cheese pizza arcade chain? Yes, it is. 

At a Penn College Career Day, a middle-schooler learns the color-coded programming language that will make an Ozobot dance. Photo by Tia G. La

So, you make contact. Request an interview. Wait. Don’t expect anything to come of it. 

Fortunately, for Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Telly Award-winning television series, something did. The legendary entrepreneur – who began following “Working Class” on Twitter in 2016 – agreed to an interview now featured in “Working Class: Game On! Math Matters.” The one-hour documentary focuses on the importance of math education.

Bushnell – the man who brought video games into homes in the 1970s – now reimagines education as CEO of BrainRush, a company that incorporates video game technology in educational software. 

“If the student doesn’t want to come to school or is bored in school, it’s our fault,” he insisted. “We have to change what we’re doing. We have to open up our eyes and say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ We need to find that way.”

The way, he said, is to focus on each student’s mastery of the subject matter as opposed to the traditional one-size-fits-all, advance-with-the-class approach to teaching.

“If the student doesn’t want to come to school or is bored in school, it’s our fault.”

“I think we need to get rid of grades, and we need to get rid of grades,” Bushnell declared. “When you say that Johnny’s in the third grade, it automatically infers batch processing. … I think that everybody should progress at their own special level. … I think that we need to get rid of A, B, C, D, and impart, ‘You have to know 100 percent of it.’ This is particularly important in mathematics, because mathematics is very building-block sensitive. In the underlying concepts, you have to have total mastery before you can progress to the second level.”  

Penn College faculty member Jacob R. Miller agreed: “If you structure the teaching and learning environment as a game … where there are clearly defined goals, and there are clearly defined objectives, and there’s a clearly defined process for leveling up – ‘I master this, I move to the next level; I master this, I move to the next level’ – the kids seem to respond to that very well.”

A popular hobby of the 1950s was Bushnell’s motivation for accelerating his math studies when he was only 10. “I taught myself just enough algebra and just enough calculus so that I could pass the ham radio test. … I am by no means a math genius, but it was a situation where it was something I wanted to do.” 

He said the same thing is happening with youngsters today who want to design their own video games and find that math helps them achieve that goal.

Video games can encourage academic study and career preparation, said Spyke M. Krepshaw, a faculty member who works with students entering Penn College’s gaming and simulation major.

He urges parents – who “hear the word ‘gaming’ and they’re like, ‘OK, they’re going to be playing ‘Call of Duty’ for the next four years,’” – to understand that, while gaming attracts student interest, simulation prepares them for practical careers.
“The students themselves are enjoying what they’re learning a little better because they’re learning to create a game or a simulation, in their mind, a game,” he said. “Really, what they’re learning is computer programming.”

Student.

Math is a must for programming and other information technology careers, said student Jason Horton. 

“A big portion of IT is limited if you don’t really care that much about math. … You need to write mathematical statements a lot of the time to just make the code work right to do what it needs to do.” 

Math also is a key to success in electronics and computer engineering, said faculty member Edward J. Almasy: “Everything that we do in electronics – ranging from power distribution to radio communication, to launching satellites, to high-tech photography equipment and image processing and communications networks – all comes down to some very basic principles, very simple math.” 

A “convergence of amazing technology” is creating new job opportunities that require a foundation of math skills, said Almasy, associate professor of electronics.   

“You have computing technology; you have manufacturing technology, 3-D printing capabilities. You have amazing advances in the biomedical field and embedded sensors in the human body,” he explained. “We have a real eclectic mix of things that our graduates do. We have quite a number of them who are involved in automation fields. Factories and buildings and complex systems are controlled by devices that control when things turn on and off and move here and there. ... A lot of our students are very, very skilled at these semi-robotic systems. They have to know programming. They have to know how to interface equipment to one another. They have to interface computers to these systems. They have to write programs that drive all this sort of stuff. There’s quite a lot of opportunity there.”

Math faculty members Ed G. Owens and Lauren A. Rhodes encourage students to learn mathematics so they can pursue technology-based careers. 

“Math is being used in art. It’s being used in music today with all the electronic digital instruments that we have. It’s used in television broadcasting. None of that’s possible without understanding all of the mathematics behind that,” Owens said. “Math is tied to the science and the technology. … When you look at our world, and how much we’ve expanded in transportation, in health care, in industry, … the robots that we have running many of our manufacturing plants, and how they’re controlled by routines today, you don’t really need a person so much to do the actual physical part of constructing something; you need someone who knows how to control the machine.”

Owens sees this as an opportunity and a challenge for students and for math teachers. 

“Most students who are struggling with math see letters and numbers; they don’t see what they represent. A teacher can make math more interesting,” he said. “I think you have to capture their attention with the problem first, and then you can go backwards and teach the skills.”

Rhodes said we must look at math literacy in a similar context as reading literacy – stressing the importance of everyone learning the subject matter, even when mastery may be difficult.

“We have learned how people learn to read. We have overcome so many learning disabilities in getting everybody to read. In fact, a teacher would probably be fired if that teacher said to a student, ‘That’s OK. You’re probably just not a reader.’ … Yet, I have heard parents, teachers, other students, people talk about themselves saying, ‘Oh, that’s OK, you’re just not a math person. Some people just aren’t. You’ll probably never be able to do mathematics.’ I want to scream, ‘No. No!’ It may be harder in some ways to learn some pieces of mathematics for some people, but we need to find a way for math literacy.”

“Working Class: Game On! Math Matters” addresses a question frequently asked in math classes – “When will I ever use this?” – by describing real-world connections between mathematics and technology-based careers. Produced 
by Penn College and WVIA Public Media, the series is broadcast on public television and presented online at 
http://workingclass.TV.
 

Superhero Adventures

Mike Cherry decided there was a need for a math superhero, so he created one.

When Penn College math teacher Ed G. Owens shared “The Addventures of Plusman” with the producers of “Working Class: Game On! Math Matters,” they went in search of the comic’s creator. They found him at Mohonk Preserve in New York, coaching the Shawanpunks, a team of young rock climbers named for Shawangunk ridge, one of the nation’s premier climbing areas.

The Addventures of Plusman cover.

“The essence of delving into a mathematical concept and the complexity of movement required to complete a rock climb are essentially parallel creative processes,” said the experienced climber, coach and comic book creator.

“Math and climbing are similar in that they’re both hard,” he stressed. “If you approach them with joy and you’re interested in them, hard is irrelevant; it’s something you want to do.”

Overcoming fear is crucial for success in climbing to the top of a mountain or solving a difficult math problem.

“It’s difficult to teach kids that it’s OK to fail,” Cherry said. “I think with math, sometimes students go in with the idea that ‘I’m going to fail’ or, ‘I don’t want to look stupid.’ They have to realize that math is hard. … It’s just like a progression in climbing.”

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell echoed Cherry’s comments in describing the connection between fun and learning: “When I play chess, I expect to be beaten on occasion, and when I fail, … I set the pieces up and do it again. That’s the mindset we want. … We’re seeking adventure.”

The prospect of a new adventure can encourage us to grow beyond our fears and limitations.

“Failure is actually a byproduct of doing,” Bushnell said. “The old story is if you want to make it down the hill skiing without falling, just go slow. That person made it down the hill; they made it down without failing, but it wasn’t very fun. It was kind of boring. What you want to be able to do is have people do a lot of things that challenge them.”

The Addventures of Plusman cover.

Cherry agrees that fun often leads to learning, even when the subject is mathematics.

“When I was coming up with the idea of Plusman, … I knew I wanted to make it humorous and I wanted to make it easily accessible to students so that they would read it and laugh,” he said. “The idea of incorporating puns into it and taking the language of math and puns and just creating a humorous, sort of campy, math superhero comic book. That was the idea behind it.”

With characters that include the hero Adam Togedder, a three-legged dog named Tripod, and the evil Dr. Nein, “The Addventures of Plusman” encourages a lighter approach to the serious subject of math.

“I think my comic books make math accessible,” Cherry said. “You can’t look at Plusman and be terribly intimidated. He’s not an intimidating character. … A lot of students like the concept. … They can begin to look at math and see it in a different light, where it’s actually fun.”

– Elaine J. Lambert