Math and the World of WolframAlpha

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Less than one generation ago, basic computers occupied entire rooms, four function calculators were the size of a brick, and college students still used typewriters for formal papers. It has only been ten short years since overhead projectors and transparencies, paper, and pencils were the primary media by which teachers taught math. But thanks to technological advances, the world in which we live today is a very different place. Internet works at the speed of lightning and seemingly everyone walks around with a supercomputer in their pocket (they usually call it their phone). Widely recognized is the fact that these and other new technologies have made modern life easier and faster paced. With this quickly changing society comes the question: how will we, as educators, incorporate technology in the classroom to foster mathematical discovery, interest, and mastery?

WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge engine capable of performing calculations once only possible by hand. It functions as a database of seemingly endless facts, such as weather records, people in history, and food nutrition. You can learn more about WolframAlpha by visiting their website.

WolframAlpha holds the potential to serve as a meaningful tool for math exploration in the classroom setting. However, teachers must be careful to guide students in its use, otherwise it may be abused as a means by which to feed in a hard homework problem so that the answer gets spit out for the taking. One example of such guided exploration would be to instruct students to use WolframAlpha to find the area of a regular pentagon, octagon, decagon, and dodecagon, each with a perimeter of 100 inches. Have the students take note of any patterns they see. Then instruct the students to find the area of a circle with circumference equal to 100 inches and compare their answer with the areas found above. Through this, students will recognize how the area of a circle can be approximated/approached.

Another application of WolframAlpha is to allow students to use it as a database through which they can gather information to make charts, graphs, or comparisons. An interesting benefit to using WolframAlpha over other web search engines is that WolframAlpha acts as an automatic filter for unwanted distractions.

In its book Principles to Actions, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) stresses the importance of using technology, declaring Tools and Technology  to be one of the guiding principles for school math. NCTM argues that technology helps grow students’ ability to reason mathematically, which, as suggested by Richard Skemp, is integral to relational understanding.

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