I have taught collegiate mathematics for more than 20 years and have used *Mathematica* for 15 or so of these years to explore, learn, and teach. For the last eight years *Mathematica* has been my primary tool to write all of my exams, handouts, letters, reports, papers, presentations, and even a complete electronic textbook. New features introduced recently have been revolutionary in the teaching and learning environment and make possible the creation of materials that integrate text, typeset mathematics, and interactive figures, which can be created efficiently and used effectively in ways not possible with other software tools.

For faculty and students to benefit from using *Mathematica* in the teaching and learning process, they must be able to use *Mathematica* sufficiently well to remain focused on course concepts and not become frustrated by the technology. Without question, the main challenge I face teaching new users how to use *Mathematica* is helping them master the task of creating syntactically correct commands, followed closely by the challenge of teaching how to use *Mathematica* to write rich documents that combine text, typeset mathematics, and figures.

When the use of technology gets in the way of the teaching, learning, and writing about content, which should remain the focus of academic learning, then all involved in the teaching and learning process experience frustration! If enough example commands are provided, if the ways of *Mathematica* are carefully explained, and if patient help is readily available, then some new users are able work their way up the learning curve and reach a point where they can focus on the subject matter and are able to comfortably use *Mathematica* to explore, learn, teach, and write about the concepts. Members of this group are often able to independently deepen their understanding and use of *Mathematica* by relying on the Wolfram *Mathematica* Documentation Center and other resources; but not enough new users reach this level of *Mathematica* knowledge and thus do not experience firsthand the marvelous capabilities of *Mathematica* to explore, investigate, learn, teach, and write about interesting ideas!

What can be done to support new users as they learn *Mathematica*? What can be done for the new user who begins using *Mathematica* and has no conceptual framework of the types of basic commands available in *Mathematica*, and who doesn’t know what their names are or what their required and optional arguments are? The new Basic Math Assistant palette in *Mathematica* 7 can create templates for hundreds of commands, such as the `Plot` example shown below, with a few clicks of the mouse. The yellow boxed placeholders can be filled in as needed and the command evaluated by clicking the Enter button on the Basic Math Assistant palette. No syntax memorization required! The basic *Mathematica* commands on the palette are grouped together to help a user build a mental understanding of the different types of basic commands available, including mathematical functions, algebra commands, calculus commands, matrix commands, table/list/vector commands, 2D plot commands, and 3D plot commands.

Some people master and memorize precise command syntax quickly while others do not, and whether or not they do is certainly not related to their intelligence or inquisitiveness. Why should memorization of command names and syntax be the key that unlocks the application of *Mathematica* to the exploration, learning, and teaching of interesting ideas? If new users have difficulty memorizing command names, required arguments, optional arguments, and syntax structures, can you imagine the frustration they would experience when using *Mathematica* to create a simple plot displaying the graph of the sine function as a red curve, a phase shifted sine function as a blue curve, and tick marks on the horizontal axis Π/4 units apart and 1/2 unit apart on the vertical axis for two periods of the sine function?

What can be done for the teacher who may want to create an interactive plot based on the figure above during an actual class session? Even if we assume the instructor had everything memorized and was fast at the keyboard, this sort of command is a bit too much to expect most teaching faculty to enter “on the spot” in a classroom setting. If they are teaching with an interactive whiteboard, creating such a visual would mean leaving the whiteboard and resorting to a nearby physical keyboard—not a good use of *interactive* whiteboard technology. Wouldn’t it be handy if the previous figure could be created quickly without needing to remember every little detail, using only a pointing device, and then made interactive with just a few more clicks? This type of command can be created completely using only a pointing device and the new Basic Math Assistant palette in *Mathematica* 7!

Create a template using the Basic Math Assistant palette:

Fill in the blanks.

Fill in each yellow boxed placeholder by either typing or clicking buttons on the Basic Math Assistant palette and click the Enter button to create the figure.

Use the Basic Math Assistant palette to create an interactive figure with the `Manipulate` command.

Click the `Manipulate` button on the palette to insert the command template `Manipulate[,]` into the notebook, click the Input from Above button to insert the previous `Plot` command in the placeholder (or recreate the `Plot` command right inside the `Manipulate` command), click Tab to go to the placeholder and select a control form from the Manipulator Control drop down menu, fill in the yellow placeholder boxes, replace Π/4 with Θ in the argument of the second sine function, and click the Enter button to create the interactive figure.

This movie shows how to use the Basic Math Assistant palette to create the previous commands.

When I share with students and teaching colleagues that *Mathematica* is the only software I use to write notes, exams, handouts, lecture presentations, letters, reports, presentations, and so on, their response is often something like, “Are you crazy?” I have come to understand their surprise, because while it is certainly possible to use *Mathematica* in this way, it is not intuitive, or obvious, how to do what is necessary to rely on *Mathematica* as your primary writing tool. What can be done to assist users who want to use *Mathematica* for writing tasks that combine text, typeset mathematics, organization structures (sections, subsections, etc.), computations, static figures, and dynamic interactive figures? The functionality of the new Writing Assistant palette in *Mathematica* 7 can help you begin to write such rich documents and presentations—no third-party equation editor is required, neither is any other presentation software necessary; everything is built into *Mathematica* 7. These dynamic documents can be shared with anyone using *Mathematica* 7 or the freely available *Mathematica* Player, or a static PDF can be created from within *Mathematica* and distributed.

Some of my own students use the tools on the Writing Assistant palette to efficiently write their lecture notes during class in *Mathematica* and later email me their typeset calculus homework assignments—I have included a sample of a student homework assignment below sent in by a student who had been using *Mathematica* for less than three weeks.

The new Classroom Assistant palette in *Mathematica* 7 contains everything in the Basic Math Assistant and Writing Assistant palettes in addition to tools that can be used to efficiently navigate around a notebook and within an input command, and a complete onscreen keyboard for those places where no physical keyboard is available. All three palettes can be run in condensed mode to use less space on the screen.

My experiences using and teaching others *Mathematica* for many years convinced me of the need for a tool to help new users learn, create, and edit *Mathematica* commands quickly without needing to memorize names and syntax. I felt it was important to create a tool to help others create rich documents and presentations integrating text, typeset mathematics, computations, and figures. Teaching mathematics with *Mathematica* and an interactive whiteboard convinced me of the need for a tool that could be used to construct commands quickly without needing a physical keyboard. Working with visual thinking students and faculty, who much prefer clicking on buttons to memorizing and using keyboard commands, convinced me that a physical keyboard should be required as little as possible for common *Mathematica* tasks.

The three Assistant palettes were developed to provide plenty of visual reminders and functional groupings for the basic *Mathematica* commands. They give quick access to commonly used interface operations, they contain button tooltips galore with information about command usage, reminders, and operating-system-appropriate keyboard shortcuts, and with them a physical keyboard is optional—especially important if you are a visually oriented user, or even find yourself using *Mathematica* with an interactive whiteboard in a classroom setting or Tablet PC. The three new Quick-Start Assistant Palettes, accessible in *Mathematica* 7′s Palettes Menu, are the product of a desire to help more people experience the benefit of using *Mathematica* to explore, investigate, learn, teach, and write about interesting ideas.

The three Quick-Start Assistant palettes can be seen in action in the screencasts “Using the *Mathematica* Basic Math Assistant Palette,” “Using the *Mathematica* Classroom Assistant Palette,” and “Using the *Mathematica* Writing Assistant Palette.”

I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, questions, and ideas about the Quick-Start Assistant palettes—write to me at wolframblog@wolfram.com.