High school algebra marks a key transition point in one’s early mathematical education, and is a common point at which students feel that mathematics becomes really difficult. One of the reasons for this is that the problem solving process for a high school algebra question is significantly more free-form than the mechanical algorithms one is taught for elementary arithmetic, and a certain amount of planning and strategy now comes into play. For instance, if one wants to, say, write {\frac{1,572,342}{4,124}} as a mixed fraction, there is a clear (albeit lengthy) algorithm to do this: one simply sets up the long division problem, extracts the quotient and remainder, and organises these numbers into the desired mixed fraction. After a suitable amount of drill, this is a task that can be accomplished by a large fraction of students at the middle school level. But if, for instance, one has to solve a system of equations such as

\displaystyle  a^2 + bc = 7

\displaystyle  2b - c = 1

\displaystyle  a + 2 = c

for {a,b,c}, there is no similarly mechanical procedure that can be easily taught to a high school student in order to solve such a problem “mindlessly”. (I doubt, for instance, that any attempt to teach Buchberger’s algorithm to such students will be all that successful.) Instead, one is taught the basic “moves” (e.g. multiplying both sides of an equation by some factor, subtracting one equation from another, substituting an expression for a variable into another equation, and so forth), and some basic principles (e.g. simplifying an expression whenever possible, for instance by gathering terms, or solving for one variable in terms of others in order to eliminate it from the system). It is then up to the student to find a suitable combination of moves that isolates each of the variables in turn, to reveal their identities.

Once one is sufficiently expert in algebraic manipulation, this is not all that difficult to do, but when one is just starting to learn algebra, this type of problem can be quite daunting, in part because of an “embarrasment of riches”; there are several possible “moves” one could try to apply to the equations given, and to the novice it is not always clear in advance which moves will simplify the problem and which ones will make it more complicated. Often, such a student may simply try moves at random, which can lead to a dishearteningly large amount of effort expended without getting any closer to a solution. What is worse, each move introduces the possibility of an arithmetic error (such as a sign error), the effect of which is usually not apparent until the student finally arrives at his or her solution and either checks it against the original equation, or submits the answer to be graded. (My own son can get quite frustrated after performing a lengthy series of computations to solve an algebra problem, only to be told that the answer was wrong due to an arithmetic error; I am sure this experience is common to many other schoolchildren.)

It occurred to me recently, though, that the set of problem-solving skills needed to solve algebra problems (and, to some extent, calculus problems also) is somewhat similar to the set of skills needed to solve puzzle-type computer games, in which a certain limited set of moves must be applied in a certain order to achieve a desired result. (There are countless games of this general type; a typical example is “Factory balls“.) Given that the computer game format is already quite familiar to many schoolchildren, one could then try to teach the strategy component of algebraic problem-solving via such a game, which could automate mechanical tasks such as gathering terms and performing arithmetic in order to reduce some of the more frustrating aspects of algebra. (Note that this is distinct from the type of maths games one often sees on educational web sites, which are usually based on asking the player to correctly answer some maths problem in order to advance within the game, making the game essentially a disguised version of a maths quiz. Here, the focus is not so much on being able to supply the correct answer, but on being able to select an effective problem-solving strategy.)

It is difficult to explain in words exactly what type of game I have in mind, so I decided to create a quick mockup of what a sample “level” would look like here (note: requires Java). I didn’t want to spend too much time to make this mockup, so I wrote it in Scratch, which is a somewhat limited programming language intended for use by children, but which has the benefit of being able to churn out simple but functional apps very quickly (the mockup took less than half an hour to write). (I would certainly not attempt to write a full game in this language, though.) In this mockup level, the objective is to solve a single linear equation in one variable, such as {2x+7=11}, with only two “moves” available: the ability to subtract {1} from both sides of the equation, and the ability to divide both sides of the equation by {2}, which one performs by clicking on an appropriate icon.

It seems to me that one could actually teach a fair amount of algebra through a game such as this, with a progressively difficult sequence of levels that gradually introduce more and more types of “moves” that can handle increasingly difficult problems (e.g. simultaneous linear equations in several unknowns, quadratic equations in one or more variables, inequalities, etc.). Even within a single class of problem, such as solving linear equations, one could create additional challenge by placing some restriction on the available moves, for instance by limiting the number of available moves (as was done in the mockup), or requiring that each move cost some amount of game currency (which might possibly be waived if one is willing to perform the move “by hand”, i.e. by entering the transformed equation manually). And of course one could also make the graphics, sound, and gameplay fancier (e.g. by allowing for various competitive gameplay modes). One could also imagine some other types of high-school and lower-division undergraduate mathematics being amenable to this sort of gamification (calculus and ODE comes to mind, and maybe propositional logic), though I doubt that one could use it effectively for advanced undergraduate or graduate topics. (Though I have sometimes wished for an “integrate by parts” or “use Sobolev embedding” button when trying to control solutions to a PDE…)

This would however be a fair amount of work to actually implement, and is not something I could do by myself with the time I have available these days. But perhaps it may be possible to develop such a game (or platform for such a game) collaboratively, somewhat in the spirit of the polymath projects? I have almost no experience in modern software development (other than a summer programming job I had as a teenager, which hardly counts), so I would be curious to know how projects such as this actually get started in practice.