If You Teach a Student Mathematica…
April 14, 2009 — Michael Morrison, Academic Relationship Executive
Each release of Mathematica brings with it powerful new tools that can be applied to an ever-widening range of fields, so it’s no surprise that a great many faculty members at all levels choose Mathematica as the tool around which to base their curricula. My first introduction to the software came during my undergraduate education when I took a differential equations course. As my professor went through the syllabus and explained what topics we would cover that semester, she also mentioned that we would be using Mathematica and showed some examples of what it could do.
Having never used mathematical technology more sophisticated than a graphing calculator, I did admittedly have a bit of a rocky start with the language and syntax. I remember my professor spending a lecture period going over the basics of how to enter input and perform computations, but I decided to dismiss all that advice and just figure it out myself—which seemed to be a good idea at the time. I probably should have paid closer attention to my professor’s tutorial, because I soon became frustrated at what seemed like a very rigid language. As I investigated further—mostly by looking at all the examples in the documentation—I quickly realized that by learning a few simple rules one could effectively harness the program and produce powerful results. Ultimately it was Mathematica‘s consistent language design that got me excited about learning more.
From that day on, I was hooked. I ate up any courses offered by the department that used Mathematica (including mathematical modeling), and a couple of university degrees later I was working directly for Wolfram Research, helping schools—including my alma mater—leverage Mathematica‘s capabilities and integrate it into their curricula.
But I digress; let me get back to teaching. Instructors quickly understand the value of augmenting their teaching with Mathematica, whether it takes the form of lab exercises, projects, quizzes, or tests, but a common refrain I hear from the faculty is that because of the wealth of material to cover in a single semester, it’s hard to devote a lecture period to teaching students the basics of how to use Mathematica.
We listened to this feedback, and our response was the “Hands-on Start to Mathematica” screencast, which has since been updated.
This 20-minute tutorial went live for the 2008 fall semester, and faculty test-drove it with their Mathematica courses. The video can be watched on demand, so it makes an effective homework assignment for students, watching and working alongside Mathematica as they learn how to format text, perform computations, generate plots, and even create their own interactive models.
The response to this screencast has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than getting sidetracked by the technology used to teach mathematical concepts, students are free to ask more interesting questions about the concepts themselves. Here’s some sample feedback from Michael Morrison (no relation), a professor at the University of Oklahoma:
“I am a long-time user and (strong!) advocate of Mathematica both in research and in the classroom. In fact, I’ve been training students in Mathematica since about Version 3. I have tried all sorts of techniques to help students master the ever-escalating breadth, power, and complexity of Mathematica, including wide use of the various resources that have become available on Wolfram’s website over the years. Nothing that I nor Wolfram has made available has been anywhere near as successful as the screencasts you and others have begun putting on the website. For reasons I don’t fully understand yet, students love these things! More importantly, they learn from them far more than they do from printed material, including good books and tutorials.”
Of course, Mathematica‘s use is so broad and deep that it would be impossible to have a single tutorial cover everything you’d like to know—with documentation that would total over 11,000 printed pages, that would make for one heck of a long video. Luckily we have an always-growing collection of tutorial screencasts on all sorts of topics:
So if you haven’t used Mathematica in the classroom before, give it a shot—you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what your students can do once they know the basics. If you’re new to Mathematica yourself, try our “Computational Thinking in the Classroom” archived special event, which shows how and why to bring Mathematica into your classroom. Who knows? Perhaps a former student will one day end up as your liaison at Wolfram Research!