Local News Spotlight

Teach kids math? 17-year-old has an app for that

At 17, Blane Townsend developed a learning tool that has teachers and young students excited.

Updated: 2012-09-18T03:39:06Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

From the 10-year-olds’ perspective, the lineup in their “really cool” Smithville Upper Elementary School classroom goes something like this:

The kids? “We’re the guinea pigs,” fifth-grader Blake Bantz said.

Their teacher, who’d just had them get out their computer tablets with the experimental math applications, is “Ms. Delafuente.”

The central office administrator who had dropped in to watch them go at this engaging, customized programming: “Dr. Schuetz.”

The creator of this math program? He’s practically one of them.

He’s 17. He comes to help every other day from the high school down the street.

He’s simply “Blane.”

“I thought he was going to be a geek … like (he’d say) ‘Yoda’s so cool,’ ” fifth-grader Chandler Miles said.

“I thought we’d have a little app that does some math problems,” Blake said. “Nothing like this.”

The creator is Blane Townsend, who started teaching himself from the Internet to write computer programming code when he was 14.

Three years later, he is creating and refining a learning system that Rachel Delafuente is using to teach math to her fifth-grade class.

“Blane,” children sporadically called out in class this week, with their hands raised.

“Blane.”

The lanky teen circulated among them, nattily dressed with a dark tie, his generous smile in braces as he watched them tapping and dragging their fingers across their screens.

Delafuente had pulled a small group of children to a side table to work on specific lessons. She knows they’re struggling on the material because Blane’s system told her so.

Todd Schuetz, Smithville’s assistant superintendent for academic services, surveyed it all, feeling like he was getting a good look at where classroom instruction is heading.

“Their brains are wired to explore,” he said. “They discover what’s new. This allows them to learn their natural way.”

And to think “this” began because Blane needed service project hours.


Late May, soon after school had let out, Blane found himself sitting with his mother, Anne Townsend, in a conference room with the superintendent, the curriculum director, the technology director and Schuetz.

Although the school administrators knew nothing of Blane’s code-writing exploits, they knew he was a standout student.

So they listened.

He’d decided to give programming a try on his own at 14. His father, Jeff Townsend, had been a programmer before he’d moved up the executive ranks at Cerner Corp.

Blane’s first attempt, a basketball stats program he called Shot Tracker, took him six months and some 5,000 lines of programming code.

He’d started building games after that, his latest being Baboon Bash, with 15,000 lines of code.

Smithville had recently received an anonymous donation of computer tablets. And Blane wanted to write an app for them.

Intrigued, the administrators teamed him with Delafuente to focus on fifth-grade math.

They used the teacher’s textbook and he began building a system with problems, tests, contests, sketch pads and “manipulatives” with virtual blocks, coins and graphics the children would tap and drag with their fingertips.

He built in hints the children could summon if they were stumped. The program would tell them immediately if they got it right or wrong.

If they took to doodling with the sketchpad or pursuing other diversions, it would tell them “get back to work” and email the teacher.

Delafuente, on her computer, could call up a grid showing how each student was doing on each lesson’s set of problems — whether they had passed them, missed them, or needed hints to get them.

Combined, Blane has amassed more than 25,000 lines of code programming the website and the application.

The children love it. They snap into line when Delafuente warns them they need to settle down if they want to get out the computers.

“It’s a lot better than worksheets,” said 10-year-old Brock Davis, who mimicked the old-fashioned way of paper with his body slung over the work table, tongue dragging, with an imaginary pencil.

“It tells you immediately if you got it right or wrong,” classmate Makayla Ferguson said.

“You don’t have to wait a day,” said Skylar Brooks. “I can go home and tell mom and dad what I got on my test. It’s amazing.”

The ease with which her fifth-graders have taken on the technology surprised Delafuente.

“They’re fearless,” she said.


At some point back in the summer, the work on the learning system Blane named “Gray Matter” far surpassed his community service requirement.

“I didn’t expect it to get this big,” he said.

The school district intends to monitor the math performance of the class with an eye on expanding his learning system if it proves successful. Blane is already set to build other subjects into his system.

It grows and refines almost daily.

His high school counselor created a course name with graduation credits to compensate him for the hours he spends at the upper elementary school. It’s called “Learning Content Management Systems.”

It’s safe to say Blane is passing the course.

He’s also making quite an impression on the children, Delafuente said.

Blane “is such a positive role model,” she said. She wonders just how many young minds he is turning on to learning and technology before he graduates and heads off to Rice University next fall.

Many of her 10- and 11-year-olds — boys and girls — want to be like Blane.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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