Is Mathematica for K–12 Education? You Bet!
April 28, 2009 — Kathy Bautista, Academic Program Manager
Mathematica has long been used by university-level faculty and researchers for work in math, physics, engineering, and many other fields. Good at everything from creating class documents and lab assignments to analyzing and visualizing data collected during experiments, Mathematica has become the software of choice for millions of academic researchers, faculty, and students because it is an all-in-one system that combines powerful computing and visualization capabilities with sophisticated documentation and presentation tools.
But in my years of working with universities as Wolfram Research’s Academic Program Manager, I’ve come to realize that many students who will become future high school teachers aren’t using Mathematica in their math and science education classes. Why is that? Some have told me that they heard somewhere along the line that Mathematica was too difficult to learn and use. Others had assumed that it was too powerful for their needs, or not completely applicable to the subjects they would be teaching. But those that do take a closer look at Mathematica are usually amazed by what they see.
Let me share with you just a few of the things that current and future K–12 educators have been pleasantly surprised to find out and have come to love about Mathematica.
Mathematica includes an interactive mathematical typesetting system that makes input and output look like real math.
This means that all equations in your Mathematica-created lesson plans, homework assignments, and quizzes can look like the examples in the textbooks, in a format that is familiar to your students.
Being an all-in-one system, Mathematica allows you to combine calculations, text, graphics, and even interactive models in a single document. One of the benefits of this type of system is that your calculations and graphics remain in the same system that created them, so you can make updates or apply new functions whenever you wish and immediately see the results. But what good is that if you have to switch to PowerPoint or another tool to present to your class? Enter Mathematica‘s slideshow feature. Mathematica now includes tools that let you quickly and easily turn your document into a slideshow so you can run your presentations without ever leaving Mathematica.
For many years we have referred to Mathematica as being “interactive” because you can change the parameters of a calculation on the fly during class, and view the new results right before your eyes. With Mathematica, your calculations and graphics are no longer static, and students can see exactly what would happen if the variables changed. But since the addition of a single command in Version 6, Manipulate, Mathematica‘s interactivity has jumped to a whole new level.
Now teachers can create interactive models that let students explore concepts by manipulating an expression—or a graphical representation of an expression—with things like sliders, buttons, and checkboxes. When you wrap the Manipulate command around an existing calculation, Mathematica automatically creates a sophisticated interface that lets you and your students change values and see what happens in real time. It’s truly empowering!
Now students can interact with everything from two-dimensional trajectory paths…
to Riemann sums…
to the phases of the planets…
to almost anything else you can imagine. See the Wolfram Demonstrations Project for thousands of free ready-to-use examples.
Another exciting feature for educators is the Classroom Assistant Palette, which provides a point-and-click interface for teachers and students. You can use this palette not only to enter calculations, but also to create graphics, dynamic models, and even slideshows. New users who have no previous Mathematica experience can jump right in; the palette fills in the appropriate commands for them and includes placeholders that show them where to enter their function and variables.
This has been hugely popular for K–12 teachers because they don’t need to teach students how to use Mathematica itself; they can simply teach their class using Mathematica as their exploration tool. In fact, because Mathematica has become so easy to use—you can literally create an interactive model for your classroom in less than a minute—we’re not only seeing a jump in usage at the high school and community college levels, but at grade schools and junior highs as well.
Special Program for K–12 Teachers
One of the goals of my Academic Initiatives Group is to develop resources that help educators integrate Mathematica into their classrooms. Throughout my 14 years at Wolfram Research, I’ve helped create a plethora of support materials for schools that have site-licensed Mathematica at a campus-wide level. But one of my passions has always been to help make Mathematica more accessible to individual teachers.
So over the past couple of months, with overwhelming support from my colleagues here at Wolfram, I have been working on an exciting new program for K–12 and community college teachers that not only shows them how they can bring new life to their classrooms with Mathematica, but also makes Mathematica more affordable than ever before.
I’m excited to announce that this program has officially been launched!
Through the 30 Minutes to Mathematica & Free Training website, teachers are introduced to Mathematica through a series of three short videos that show how easy and fun it is to use Mathematica to create an interactive, dynamic classroom that engages students and helps increase their understanding of the concepts being taught. Teachers who watch this series of videos, which takes less than 30 minutes, are sent an online training video that will walk them through their first calculations and are given an exclusive opportunity to purchase Mathematica for the Classroom for only $49. That’s less than most scientific calculators!
Although this pilot program is currently available only to teachers in the United States and Canada, precollege and community college educators in other countries can still purchase Mathematica for the Classroom at a huge discount off the academic list price. However, if you live elsewhere and would like to see this program available in your area, please email me.
If you’re a current or future K–12 teacher, what are you waiting for? Now’s the perfect time to start using Mathematica, because teaching with Mathematica really is interactive, easy, and fun! Let me help you get started…