The Bootstrap Blog

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Why the name “Bootstrap”?

Many people ask us "where did you get your name from?" As 2021 draws to a close, we thought it might be interesting to share some Bootstrap history, and share the story behind our name. To do this we'll need to part the mists of time, and take you back to 2005...

In 2005, the Black Eyed Peas were on the radio with "Don't Phunk with My Heart" alongside "Feel Good" by Gorillaz. Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, and Morgan Freeman won the Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby." That summer, our program director Emmanuel partnered with Compass Computer Camps, an undergraduate program run out of Northeastern University, where undergraduates taught functional programming to students from neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan, and Southie.

Emmanuel based the Compass curriculum on the materials he developed as a math teacher, and worked with the undergraduates to teach the material. This curriculum would eventually be used at Citizen Schools, taught by volunteers around the country in one of the largest afterschool CS-Education efforts. In 2007, Emmanuel joined forces with Shriram Krishnamurthi (at Brown) and Kathi Fisler (then at WPI). The new team needed a name!

Reason 1: A nod to our beginnings. We wanted to acknowledge the work done at Compass, and "Bootstrap" is a nod and a wink to the outdoorsy, "finding your way" moniker at Northeastern.

Reason 2: Math and Statistics. As a team that believes deeply in the value of integration with mathematics and statistics, we wanted to build a reference into our very name. In mathematics, an axiomatic system that is sophisticated enough to prove itself has been said to "bootstrap" itself. In statistics, "bootstrapping" is an approach to modeling a sample population by re-sampling that population, using the second sample to compute the quality of the inference of the first.

Reason 3: Computer Science. We are one of the few CS Education teams that also designs our own programming languages and compilers, which we have found to be absolutely critical to our work in math education. A compiler is a program that converts code written in one high level language (Pyret or Racket, in our case!) into a lower-level language (like the javascript that runs in your web browser). A critical milestone is reached when a compiler is mature enough to compile itself, and this milestone is called "Bootstrapping". The term has other meanings in computing as well, but this one holds a special significance for us.

Reason 4: Equity. Today, the term "Bootstrap" has become a politically-charged one, most commonly used to cut social programs (e.g. - "people need to pull themselves up by their own Bootstraps!"). But in 2005, this term was also used by those who wanted to fund those programs. There was a movement to shift people's thinking about communities away from the "deficit model" to the "asset model" (read more), in which assistance was built on a community's strengths rather than needs. We use math-aligned languages to let math teachers and students build on what they already know from math, and pedagogies like the Design Recipe to give students a structure to scaffold and check their own work. These are core to our commitment to equity, which we also wanted to build into the name.

A lot has changed in the last decade and a half! We shifted from after-school to in-school education. We shifted from serving 200 students a year to more than 30,000. We added the the Pyret programming language, and extended our integration work to Physics, History, Statistics and more. We've been fortunate to work with giants in the field when it comes to Data Science, Accessibility, Math- and CS-Education, and to partner with states and districts around the US. In our name we acknowledge the past, look ahead to the opportunity of integrated math and computing, and keep our feet planted in the needs of the present for equity and support. The world has changed and we have grown, but our values remain the same - and our conviction to continue this work has only grown stronger.

Happy New Year, from all of us at Bootstrap. We can't wait to continue our work in the year ahead!

Posted December 17th, 2021