Wolfram|Alpha is here

Wolfram|Alpha is a new, computational search engine. If you do a query where the answer has quantitative data, Wolfram|Alpha probably gives it.

For example, try enter your last name. Wolfram|Alpha gives you information about the popularity of that name. For example, "miller" ranks 6th within the US and there are about 1,128,000 people with that surname.

Enter a first name, and it will even give you a graph showing the name's popularity over the years. I just found out that Cindy's popularity peaked in about 1960. No wonder it is a common first name among the mothers who ask me questions about their children's math education.

Enter a town - for example Houston, and see what information comes up.

But, the reason I'm writing this post is because Wolfram|Alpha (or Walpha as some called it) especially excels in mathematical queries.

This has implications to mathematics education, especially in high school and college. This tool is completely free, easy to use, and accessible for everyone with an Internet connection (even with a smart phone). Just imagine if you are a math teacher and you assign homework for your 9th graders, "Find the equation of the line that goes through points (2,5) and (-8, -9)." W|A does it in a split second.

It also solves equations. For example, Solve ln(x)+ ln(x-2)+ ln(15). It even gives you the solution steps - just click on "show steps".

Please see a full list of examples of what Wolfram|Alpha can do in mathematics.

While W|A easily computes a lot for the elementary algebra or calculus student, it doesn't stop there. Look at the examples for elementary mathematics given on the site. It also acts as a fraction and percent calculator. Granted, normal calculators do those as well.

So, what is a teacher to do? Will a lot of the content in high school and college math courses suddenly become obsolete?

Now, Wolfram|Alpha is not what started bringing technological tools into classroom. That trend has been here for a while (think graphic calculators, computers). However, it is an extension of the trend that makes the computational tools more easily accessible and available to nearly all students.

I see Walpha both as a benefit and as a drawback.

- BENEFIT: Teaching can focus more on the concepts and less on tedious calculations, since practically all students will have a tool they can use for computations and graphing (all you need is a computer with an Internet connection or a smart phone). Students could be given more problems of the type that require thinking and problem solving, and less of the mechanical calculation problems.

- DRAWBACK: It is a fact that one cannot adequately learn mathematics without also learning many of these "mechanical tasks", such as how to find the slope of a line when given two points, or how to graph a parabola from its equation. If these skills were totally skipped, students wouldn't be prepared for the next mathematics course where such knowledge is needed. So, teachers cannot skip those topics and need to enforce student learning in such a way that cheating with Wolfram|Alpha cannot happen (putting such problems in the test).

Actually, I'm not so sure if W|A will change the actual teaching so much, because many students have already been having graphic calculators, which do similar things as W|A. I wonder if the biggest change it brings along is a decline in the sales of graphic calculators...

Read also what others have blogged about W|A :

Impact of Wolfram Alpha on Math Ed

Wolfram Alpha is up and running

Wolfram|Alpha and the shrinking future of the graphing calculator

Walpha Wiki discussion


Beckie Russell said…

I think that it will have little impact on the learning if teachers simply require students to show how they arrived at a particular answer. On the AP exams, there are sections that require the use of a calculator so that more difficult concept questions can be asked without bogging students down in calculations. But there are also non-calculator parts that require that a student know something about the mechanical processes.

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