Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Back to School

My two high-schoolers constantly struggle with math and science. And every time I sit down to help them out, I get my own slightly sweaty flashback to my school days, reminded of how glad I am not to be dealing with homework and boring classes every day.

With all the technological distractions available to kids now, it’s hard to get them to crack a book open. On the other hand, technology also offers the means to engross modern students in their classwork.

Working on Mathematica makes that all too obvious to me, but after 17 years at Wolfram Research, I’ve been so close to and inside our development process that I’ve been taking the obvious for granted.

Sure, once in a while I check the kids’ algebra homework using Solve. But sticking a computer in front of every student in a classroom is probably not the best way to engage them as a group.

Engaging kids is going to get easier now with a combination of two things coming together, which a few of us got to preview at our recent Mathematica Publishing Day event in Oxford.

Interactive whiteboards + Wolfram Demonstrations = me being jealous of today’s students!

Interactive whiteboard running a Wolfram Demonstration

Instead of just speaking to authors and publishers about authoring tools and document production system (which are all fine and good of course), I can now point to Demonstrations—these really cool interactive widgets that practically jump off the screen, move around in all sorts of ways and just keep growing in numbers on our site.

Publishers already know all about the details of putting books together, fiddling with formatting and getting authors to do all their production work for them whenever possible. But they’ve struggled for decades to make interactive illustrations of their technical content as easily as our Demonstrations make possible.

So just think of teachers and kids getting their hands on this stuff. That gets even easier with interactive whiteboards (touch-sensitive computer projection screens). My understanding is that these whiteboards are now being added to many secondary education classrooms in the UK.

Simply start with something like the “Archimedean Screw” Demonstration and run it on the whiteboard (as seen in the picture above). The abstract concepts here may leave some kids behind, but the Demonstration lets them at least manipulate the controls. As Lou suggested in his recent blog entry, the controllers could even come from their PlayStations if not from the whiteboard system. But it gets better when the teacher annotates with handwriting and starts drawing directly on the board, right over the running Demonstration!

That may not sound like much, but for me it was an “Aha!” moment. I finished giving my talks at the Publishing Day and was sitting in the audience—thinking more about how I was going to get out of Oxford than I was about the proceedings, what with all the historic flooding going on at the time. Yet this little example of putting the two systems together just grabbed me.

I can’t help but think it will do the same for kids in classrooms, and for illustrating the books that kids have such a hard time cracking open.