February 2010

WolframAlpha: Should your students be allowed to use it?

While attending the AAPT conference in Washington DC last week I was able to attend a few interesting talks dealing with the use of educational technologies in physics/science/mathematics teaching. Many of these talks generated very interesting debates. And even though we often didn’t agree on everything, these discussions made us think. One of the hot topics was the use of the WolframAlpha by our students. If you have not encountered it before, check it out. I would recommend you to use the introduction of Stephen Wolfram as an intro to this resource. It is a very powerful tool and it opens a lot of new possibilities. However, many physics teachers were afraid that if we do allow our students to use this resource, they will be able to find a solution to most of the physics problems found in high school textbook or may¬† be in the first year university textbook. Thus the students will not develop the skills of solving problems. So many physics teachers discourage the students from using it. On the other hand, there are teachers who use this resource to create authentic physics assignments for their students. I personally haven’t thought of using it (as I was unaware of this resource), but I can see how it can be used very creatively in our courses since this resource goes far beyond what we have had before.

While thinking about this issue, I googled how WolframAlpha is used in education and I found a very interesting blog “Teaching College Math’ by Maria H. Andersen. It deals with the use of technology in mathematics education but a lot of it applies to science. It is a very useful blog and I am sure you will enjoy reading it. I also recommend you to look at this blog also dealing with the same issue.

Let me just digress and mention that I grew up in the USSR and I remember that our teachers didn’t want to allow us to use calculators, so we can calculate it all by hand. So all the angles in our problems had to be 30, 45, 60 or 90 degrees (as these are the only trigonometric values we remembers sine or cosine for). Was it important that we were able to calculate it all by hand and was it worth it? If we were to use calculators, we could have dealt with much more complicated problems. We also would have had the time to do more interesting things. I think there should be a balance and while the computation skill is important, may be today we have to redefine what a computation skill means.

This is just one example of how technology affects science and mathematics teaching and learning…If you want to think more about it, then visit this web site:

Not many of us had a chance to use it. This is a very ingenious device, called a “Slide Rule”. It was invented more than 400 years ago…
Slide rule

1 Response to WolframAlpha: Should your students be allowed to use it?

  1. Maria Andersen

    You might also be interested in some of the interesting ways we’re using Wolfram Alpha in and outside of class:

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