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New Search Engine WolframAlpha Has Mathematicians Hypothesizing

June 22, 2009

In a blog called "Teaching College Math," Maria H. Andersen of Muskegon Community College wrote, "Some instructors will likely react with resistance (i.e. we still don’t change anything) or possibly even with the charge that using WA is cheating.”

She was referring to WolframAlpha, a new math-based query service that, unlike Google and Yahoo, does not gather data from the web. Instead, its knowledge base is made up of basic and highly specialized information, especially about mathematics. Andersen is inclined to incorporate WolframAlpha into her curriculum, although, she indicated, “Anyone who is not a little scared by the changes that WolframAlpha brings hasn’t thought about it enough yet."

Vanderbilt University’s Derek Bruff is one mathematician who has. On his WolframAlpha wiki, Bruff has argued that it “has the potential to make a bigger impact on mathematics instruction than graphing calculators or commercial CAS’s [computer algebra systems] did.” Because students are sure to ask, "Why can’t we use WolframAlpha?," Bruff hopes to get as much conversation going "so that folks aren’t blindsided by this issue in the fall.”

Dan Petrak of Des Moines Area Community College incorporated WolframAlpha into an introductory course so he'd be able cover more advanced topics. “It puts the complex solutions in the same plane” as the simple answer," Petrak said. “It’s really cool because you can actually start talking about it with students, and I usually wouldn’t have mentioned it.”

MAA President David Bressoud (Macalester College) straddles the debate, noting that WolframAlpha "packages features so that they’re a little bit more accessible, but I don’t see it as revolutionary." Most math instructors, he claimed, "realize that the end-all and be-all of math instruction is not to give students algorithmic facility, but it really is to understand the mathematical ideas and understand how to use them.”

WolframAlpha's creator, Stephen Wolfram, has offered his perspective on this new debate. "This is the nature of progress," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Technology "lets you do more and more stuff automatically.” WolframAlpha "is going to be there for students" when they grow up, he pointed out. “It’s better to let them stand on that platform and go further.”

Wolfram should know. A prodigy who earned a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology at age 20, Wolfram used early computers to gain a competitive edge as a young scholar. “I’m a person who believes that at any given time, one should use the best tools available,” he claimed. In order to derive complex equations for a paper, for example, Wolfram had "used a computer,” he said. “I suppose I have a personal experience that if you use more tools, you can get more done.”

"Can you use these tools to get intuition rather than just mechanical skills?” Wolfram asked. “After kids see Mathematica, or now WolframAlpha, some fraction of them become curious and wonder, how does that actually do that?”

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2009


Start Date: 
Monday, June 22, 2009