Learning Trajectories for Integrating K-5 Computer Science and Mathematics

LTEC Staff Profile: Andy Isaacs

July 20, 2017

Name: Andy Isaacs

LTEC Role: Principal Investigator

Professional Background: I am a Research Associate Professor at the University of Chicago, where I direct UChicago STEM Education, a center that’s devoted to research and practice in STEM education. I also lead the team responsible for Everyday Mathematics, the elementary program from the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP), and teach number theory for the University’s Urban Teacher Education Program.

I taught fourth and fifth grades in Chicago-area public schools from 1977 until 1985, when I joined the Departement of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) as a lecturer in mathematics education. I came to UCSMP in 1995 to work on an NSF-funded teacher development project led by Shelia Sconiers. I earned a BA in classical Greek from Northwestern University in 1974, an MST in elementary education from the University of Chicago in 1977, and a DA in mathematics (with concentrations in abstract algebra and theoretical computer science) from UIC in 1994.

Why is LTEC my jam? In the early 1980s, I was teaching fourth grade during the day and taking mathematics courses in the evening at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, possibly the only university ever named after an expressway interchange. In those years, UICC had an evening masters program in computer science, so I ended up taking lots of CS courses. Later, when I joined UICC’s Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science as a lecturer and doctoral student, I kept taking CS courses, especially combinatorics, coding theory, and formal languages and automata. In the early 1990s, I almost pursued a dissertation is coding theory with Vera Pless, but I decided instead to stick to mathematics education with Phil Wagreich and graduated with a doctorate from the renamed University of Illinois at Chicago (apparently the Circle moniker was too undignified). Over the next 20 years, I gradually forgot almost everything I ever knew about CS.

But then, three years ago, two people in our center – Jeanne Century and Mike Lach – urged us to get into CS at the elementary school level, which at first I thought was crazy. But as I looked around at the progress the field had made since the days when I had been teaching school, I became more and more taken with the possibilities. Also, since I had spent so much time in a department that combined mathematics and computer science, the idea of integrating mathematics and CS made a lot of sense to me. (I had also worked for many years on the Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Science project at UIC, a multi-year teacher education and instructional materials development project that focused on, well, integrating mathematics and science.) Finally, there was a lot of interest from Katie Rich, Carla Strickland, and others at our center, so when NSF issued its STEM+C solicitation, we decided to propose an Exploratory project. Jeanne put us in touch with Maya Israel and George Reese down at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and our team managed to put together a proposal that NSF liked. And, perhaps most fortuitously, one of the members of the Exploratory project’s Advisory Committee, Diana Franklin, decided to move from UC Santa Barbara to the University of Chicago, so she now works in our center, too (as well as in the CS department). So we had an interesting and challenging project and an amazing team – what’s not to love?

My work: I am PI on this project, which means I tend to focus on big picture issues, as well as managing personnel and business matters. In reality, I mostly marvel at the great work the team is doing and try to keep up.

What I do with my spare time: As I write this on July 4, I realize maybe I should branch out more. But today I also baked a cake for a party tonight; made soup, platanos maduros, and a Spanish tortilla for lunch; read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer; and spent time with my wife of 43 years and my two grown daughters, one of whom is in from the Bay Area. What more could a person want?

Fun facts

  • I worked in a harbor in high school.
  • I dropped out of college and worked in a vineyard while I lived in a small town in the Black Forest.
  • My first job after college was in a gas station (which is more or less what a degree in Classical Greek prepares you for).

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