Some thoughts on using Wolfram Alpha in teaching math

My main work at our institute is to find ways on how to integrate technologyparticularly free software and Web 2.0 applications in teaching mathematics. Recently, I have been thinking of integrating Wolfram Alpha in teacher trainings, but I can’t yet  justify to myself why (I don’t want to read the work of others yet).

Don’t get me wrong. Wolfram Alpha is a great tool — the first of its kind. You type your query and voila, all the related information pop up — graphs, numbers, tables, maps,  and almost all the things that you need. Fantastic, but if a lesson ends in generating information from Wolfram Alpha, then it’s no different from using Google or Wikipedia — well a little different probably because of the presentation.  I don’t want to let students use Wolfram Alpha just to get information; I want it to be a tool that would elicit thinking.

Last weekend, I tried to tinker with Wolfram Alpha by creating widgets, and familiarizing myself with its environment. One widget I created is shown below. The widget draws a triangle with side lengths you typed in the text boxes — it’s not a photo, you can actually change the side lengths and click the Submit button to draw a triangle.

[wolframalphawidget id=”6a1a1d8e23aa39b251d7743df5966118″]

Note: Of course, if you use this widget, you should not name it Triangle Inequality; otherwise, students might search about  it on the internet.

A sample problem using the widget is as follows.

Use the widget to construct triangles by typing integral lengths less than 9. Find as many triangles as you can. Record your data and your observations.

Using this activity, students will observe that not all triples of side lengths form a triangle. There are 56 possible triples all in all  (Why?), and they must find a pattern and distinguish when the triangles are not formed; otherwise, they will have to test every triple. Using this activity, students would also need to record, organize their data, and make conjectures.

Technology is probably the best thing that happened to mathematics and mathematics education,  but we must learn how to use it properly. Wolfram Alpha is a fantastic tool to use on finding information, but we can a lot more.

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