kitchen table math, the sequel: Wolfram Alpha

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

The long-running debate over whether students should be allowed to wield calculators during mathematics examinations may soon seem quaint.

The latest dilemma facing professors is whether to let students turn to a Web site called WolframAlpha, which not only solves complex math problems, but also can spell out the steps leading to those solutions. In other words, it can instantly do most of the homework and test questions found in many calculus textbooks.

The new tool will be a bane to teaching, some professors say—but others see a blessing.

WolframAlpha was created by Stephen Wolfram, an entrepreneur who invented Mathematica, one of the first computer math engines. His new site debuted last month to much media fanfare and, like Google, provides answers to questions typed into a simple search box. It is free and already boasts millions of searches.

A Calculating Web Site Could Ignite a New Campus 'Math War'
by Jeffrey R. Young

I need WolframAlpha for proofs.

A New Online Computation Engine Shakes Up Math


LSquared32 said...

Ah well, that's the thing about proofs. You can't write an algorithm to do them. Sure you could teach a computer the 1000 most commonly assigned proofs, but that wouldn't necessarily mean it could solve proof 1001.

I found the WolframAlpha thing alarming too when I first heard of it, but as my colleague pointed out: I already assign mostly odd problems in Calculus, and if students would put in sufficient effort to go to the math lab, they could look up all of the solutions from the student solutions manual and copy them down. I suspect that so long as I require them to actually copy down the solutions in their own handwriting, they'll also be too lazy to use WolframAlpha.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a problem with this at all. Why? It goes to the heart of what homework is all about.

If homework is all about extending practice via spaced repetition (my position) then here's what happens in most cases. About a third of students are going to be able to do an assignment without a huge struggle. Another third can get through it with help and struggle. The remaining third can't get it done properly even with help. Call these groups A,B, and C respectively.

Now put Wolfram in front of them. Group A will most likely use it to verify their own work. Group B will most likely use it to get help and also acquire completed work though not necessarily their own. Group C will (if they even bother) likely copy most of it to turn in an acceptable paper.

I would argue that minimal harm comes from this when the alternative is (the norm IMO). Group A does all the problems but has lots of little mistakes. Group B burns out and turns in only some problems and these are full of misconceptions. Group C does nothing at all.

Even if a student completely copies the entire assignment they have at least been exposed to a proper solution and this is far better than doing nothing at all, right?

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming in my last comment that kids aren't using their iphones during an exam to dig up answers. That could be more problematic.

SteveH said...

Presumably, they won't have the program during tests. I read the article and don't know what the problem is. Homework should be weighted low and tests weighted high.

What's wrong with a tool that helps learning? Don't blame the tool. The problem with calculators in school is that schools use them as a way to avoid learning, and they don't replace it with higher expectations. There is nothing stopping schools from requiring mastery of traditional algorithms and using the calculator to solve complicated problems that use lots of numbers. Schools do neither. Calculators are used to avoid learning.

I can imagine that some educators might want to teach a "Wolfram" calculus course that avoids learning basic skills because you can have the program do it. That doesn't mean that the tool is not userful for learning.

When I was in school, there were some who asked why you needed to learn integration by parts when you can look up integrals in a book. Just haul out your Abramowitz and Stegun and look it up.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, but the author didn't do their homework. That claim is unverified, or at least, poorly verified.

I've tried 10 searches on WolframAlpha. NOT ONE has return ANY RESULTS AT ALL. I've asked friends the same. Not one has gotten a result to a question WA was supposed to be able to handle.

WA simply doesn't work.

LSquared32 said...

I've seen WolframAlpha in action, and it does do what they say it does...if you can figure out how to ask the question in the way the program will understand it. It's either like programming or Douglas Adams (the answer is 42, but what was the question?).

ChemProf said...

I'd agree with PaulB, in general for homework, I don't think it is a problem, as long as homework isn't overvalued in the scoring. It does convince me that my "no iPods, no PDAs, no programmable calculators" policy for exams is here to stay (which is something for high schoolers to know -- I am amazed at how many can't operate a basic scientific calculator).

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Oddly enough Wolfram Alpha cant figure out what to do with 8 ÷ 2. It does understand 8/2.