Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha is a search engine for Maths. You can type things like “y = (x+1)(x-1)x” or “weather Birmingham UK 2008” and get graphs and data. You can type a search term like “x^3 – 2x = 10” and the system will solve the equation exactly or approximately and draw graphs of the curve showing the zero crossings. Alpha went ‘live’ last week.

wolfram alpha Birmingham UK weather statistics for a year

I’ve used Wolfram Alpha on the projector all this week with various Maths classes, mostly level 2. We are covering topics like ‘trial and improvement’ solution of equations and plotting quadratic graphs. The general response has been positive, and students have been quick to recognise that ‘you still have to understand the steps’, that just getting the answer has limited value in itself.

Wolfram Alpha solving a cubic equation

‘Searching’ on terms like “4.5Kg + 500g” produces answers in terms of both the units used. Terms like “y = 3x + 1” produce graphs, but you can’t alter the x or y range, and Alpha picks intervals that contains important features like zero crossings.

One group of three mature students who have GCSE and want to study AS Maths next year used Wolfram Alpha for half an hour in an IT session (it was my differentiation activity as most of the class were looking at BBC Bitesize pages or on s-cool for interactive equation solving activities). They solved an equation, admired the exact solution, and this lead onto research for the cubic formula. The statistics search lead to speculation about the impact of systems like Wolfram Alpha that can cross reference large quantities of information from a variety of sources. I’ll be revising my Mathematica commands to work out how to take the mean temperature figures for a number of UK cities over a period of time (smoothed means?) and to plot them geographically to show the gradient from North to South. A graphing task lead to the accidental discovery that Mathematica regards capital Y used in an expression as meaning the Bessel function, and it takes a guess at the order. Graphs need to be specified using lower case y and x variables!

I’ll work out more ways of using this system in the classroom. Searching on “prime factors of 68128” gives a list of the prime factors, so there could be activities early next academic year.

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