Tag Archives: Wolfram|Alpha

Get your widget on

Wolfram, Inc. has just rolled out its newest creation: Wolfram|Alpha Widgets. These are small “apps” that execute a single W|A query using user input, without actually loading the W|A website. In just the last few days since W|A widgets have been around, hundreds of them have been made, from widgets that find anagrams to widgets that calculate comparative economic data between two states to widgets that take derivatives. Each widget also comes with the option to customize, share among social media applications (21 different services are represented), or embedded in popular blogging and wiki services such as WordPress and Mediawiki. (Sadly, there’s no WordPress.com embedding yet.) Take a look through the gallery at what’s been done.

What’s really exciting here is that you don’t need any programming knowledge to create a widget. You start with a basic W|A query, then highlight the specific search terms you want to turn into user-defined variables, and the graphical tools on the website do the work. In other words, if you can perform a W|A query, you can make a widget out of it in short order and then share it with the world via social media or embedding on a blog or wiki.

There’s a lot of potential here for use in teaching and learning:

  • The ability for anybody, with or without programming skill, to create widgets from simple W|A queries opens the door for creative technology projects for students at almost any level. An instructor could assign a project in which students simply have to create a widget that does something useful for the class, for example to generate a comparison of two stocks in an economics class (though that’s already been done) or generate a contour map of a two-variable function in a multivariable calculus class. Students work in teams to create the widget and then post on a class blog or wiki.
  • Instructors can easily add a W|A widget to a homework or writing assignment for easy generation of data from user-defined sources. For example, a standard exercise in precalculus and science is to determine when a sample of a radioactive substance is reaches a certain mass, given its half-life. In textbooks, we have to stick with one element and its half-life. But an instructor could now create a widget where the student enters in the name of an element or selects it from the list, and the widget spits out the half-life of that element. The instructor can alter the problem to say, “Pick your favorite radioactive element and use the widget to find its half-life. How long until 10mg of that element decays to 8mg?”

I’m very excited about the shallow learning curve of these widgets and the consequent potential for students to make and play with these things as creative components of a class. Here’s a screencast on how to make a widget, in which I do a complete walk-through of the creation process.

What are some other ways you could see Wolfram|Alpha widgets being used effectively in a course?

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Filed under Calculus, Educational technology, Math, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0, Wikis, Wolfram|Alpha

ICTCM underway

It’s a beautiful day here on the shores of Lake Michigan as the ICTCM gets underway. It’s a busy day and — to my never-ending annoyance — there is no wireless internet in the hotel. So I won’t be blogging/tweeting as much as I’d like. But here’s my schedule for the day.

  • 8:30 – Keynote address.
  • 9:30 – Exhibits and final preparations for my 11:30 talk.
  • 10:30 – “Developing Online Video Lectures for Online and Hybrid Algebra Courses”, talk by Scott Franklin of Natural Blogarithms.
  • 11:10 – “Conjecturing with GeoGebra Animations”, talk by Garry Johns and Tom Zerger.
  • 11:30 – My talk on using spreadsheets, Winplot, and Wolfram|Alpha|Alpha in a liberal arts calculus class, with my colleague Justin Gash.
  • 12:30 – My “solo” talk on teaching MATLAB to a general audience.
  • 12:50 – “Programming for Understanding: A Case Study in Linear Algebra”, talk by Daniel Jordan.
  • 1:30 – “Over a Decade of of WeBWorK Use in Calculus and Precalculus in a Mathematics Department”, session by Mako Haruta.
  • 2:30 – Exhibit time.
  • 3:00 – “Student Projects that Assess Mathematical Critical-Thinking Skills”, session by David Graser.
  • 5:00 – “Visualizing Mathematics Concepts with User Interfaces in Maple and MATLAB”, session by David Szurley and William Richardson.

But first, breakfast and (especially) coffee.

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Filed under ictcm, Maple, MATLAB, Scholarship, Screencasts, Social software, Software, Web 2.0, Wolfram|Alpha

MATLAB and critical thinking

My apologies for being a little behind the curve on the MATLAB-course-blogging. It’s been a very interesting last couple of weeks in the class, and there’s a lot to catch up on. The issues being brought up in this course that have to do with general thinking and learning are fascinating, deep, and complicated. It’s almost as if the course is becoming only secondarily a course on MATLAB and primarily a course on critical thinking and lifelong learning in a technological context.

This past week’s lab really brought that to the forefront. The lab was all about working with external data sets, and it involved students going to this web site and looking at this data set (XLS, 33 Kb) about electoral vote counts of the various states in the US (and the District of Columbia). One of the tasks asked students to make a scatterplot of the land area of the states versus their electoral vote counts. Once you make that scatterplot, it looks like this:

The reaction of most students to this plot was really surprising. Almost unanimously and without consulting each other, the reaction was: “That can’t be right.” When I’d ask them why not, they would say something like: It looks strange; or, it’s not like scatter plots I’ve done before; or, it just doesn’t look right.

The first instinct of those who felt like they had made a critical error in their plot was to ask me to verify whether or not they had gotten it right. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t go very far because I have a rule that I don’t answer “Is this right?” questions in the lab. (See the instructions in the lab assignment.) Student teams are responsible in the labs for determining by themselves the rightness or wrongness of their work. So it’s time for critical thinking to take center stage — which in this context would refer to using your brain and all available tools and information to self-verify your work. (I wrote about the idea of self-verification here using Wolfram|Alpha.)

Some of the suggestions I gave these teams were:

  • Have you checked your plot against the actual data? For example, look at the outliers. Can you find them in the data set itself? And look at the main cluster of data; given a cursory glance through the data set, does it look like most states have a land area less than 10^6 square miles and an electoral vote count of between 5 and 15?
  • Have you tried to create the same scatterplot using different tools? For example, everybody in the class knows Excel (because we teach it in Calculus I); the data are in Excel already, so it would be virtually no work to make a scatterplot in Excel. Have you tried that? If so, does it look like what MATLAB is creating?
  • Have you taken a moment just to think about the possible relationship between the variables, and does the shape of the data match your expectations? Probably we don’t really expect much of a relationship at all between the land area of a state and its electoral vote count, even with the outliers trimmed out, so a diffuse cloud of data markers is exactly what we want. If we got some sort of perfectly lined-up string of data points, we should be suspicious this time.

Once you phrase it like this, students pretty quickly gain confidence in their results. But, importantly, most of them have never been put into situations — at least in the classroom — where this sort of thing has been necessary. If critical thinking means anything, it means training yourself to ask questions like this and pursue their answers in an attempt to be your own judge of your work.

I was particularly surprised by the rejection of any scatter plot that doesn’t look like points on the graph of a function. “Authentic instruction” is a term without an operational definition, a lot like the term “critical thinking”, but here I think we may have a clue to what that term means. Students said their scatterplots didn’t “look right”, meaning they didn’t look like what their textbook examples had looked like, i.e. the points didn’t have an overwhelmingly strong correlation despite the existence of a few token outliers. In other words, students are trained by the use of made-up data that “right” means “strong correlation”. So when they encounter data that are very much not correlated, the scatter plot “looks wrong” rather than “looks like there’s not much correlation”. Students are somehow trained to place value judgements on scatter plots, with strong correlation = good and weak correlation = bad. I’m not sure where that perception comes from, but I bet if we gave students real data to work with, it would never take root.

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Filed under Critical thinking, Education, Liberal arts, Math, MATLAB, Problem Solving, Teaching, Technology

Unexpected kudos

Last night I received this email from my colleague Dan Callon, who is at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Francisco:

Robert,
I went to a session at the national joint meetings tonight on Wolfram|Alpha, sponsored by the MAA Special Interest Group on Mathematics Instruction Using the Web, with speaker Bruce Yoshiwara of Los Angeles’ Pierce College.  He cited the blog of the best-known expert (outside of Wolfram itself) in the country on using Wolfram|Alpha in education: Robert Talbert.  Congratulations!
Dan

I would have to rank Maria Andersen way above myself both in terms of her expertise with W|A and in terms of how well-known she is, but still, I’m honored by Prof. Yoshiwara’s mention. And I’ll keep trying to crank out relevant posts about Wolfram|Alpha in the future.

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Wolfram|Alpha as a self-verification tool

Last week, I wrote about structuring class time to get students to self-verify their work. This means using tools, experiences, other people, and their own intelligence to gauge the validity of a solution or answer without uncritical reference an external authority — and being deliberate about it while teaching, resisting the urge to answer the many “Is this right?” questions that students will ask.

Among the many tools available to students for this purpose is Wolfram|Alpha, which has been blogged about extensively. (See also my YouTube video, “Wolfram|Alpha for Calculus Students”.) W|A’s ability to accept natural-language queries for calculations and other information and produce multiple representations of all information it has that is related to the query — and the fact that it’s free and readily accessible on the web — makes it perhaps the most powerful self-verification tool ever invented.

For example, suppose a student were trying to calculate the derivative of y = \frac{e^x}{x^2 + 1}. Students might forget the Quotient Rule and instead try to take the derivative of both top and bottom of the fraction, giving:

y' = \frac{e^x}{2x}

Then, if they’re conscientious students, they’ll ask “Is this right?” What I suggest is: What does Wolfram|Alpha say? If we type in derivative of e^x/(x^2+1) into W|A, we get:

The derivative W|A gets is clearly nowhere near the derivative we got,  so one of us is wrong… and it’s probably not W|A. Even if we got the initial derivative right in an unsimplified form, the probability of a simplification error is pretty high here thanks to all the algebra; we can check our work in different ways by looking at the alternate form and at the graphs. (Is my derivative always nonnegative? Does it have a root at 0? If I graph my result on a calculator or Winplot, does it look like the plot W|A is giving me? And so on.)

But how is this better than just having a very sophisticated “back of the book”, another authority figure whose correctness we don’t question and whose answers we use as the norm? The answer lies in the  “Show steps” link at the right corner of the result. Click on it, and we get the sort of disclosure that oracles, including backs of books, don’t usually provide:

Every step is generated in complete detail. Some of the details have to be parsed out (especially the first line about using the Quotient Rule), but nothing is hidden. This makes W|A much more like an interactive solutions manual than just the back of the book, and the ability given to the student to verify the correctness of the computer-generated solution is what makes W|A much more than just an oracle whose results we take on faith.

Using W|A as a self-checking tool also trains students to think in the right sort of way about reading — and preparing — mathematical solutions. Namely, the solution consists of a chain of steps, each of which is verifiable and, above all, simple. “Differentiate the sum term by term”; “The derivative of 1 is zero”. When students use W|A to check a solution, they can sit down with that solution and then go line by line, asking themselves (or having me ask them) “Do you understand THIS step? Do you understand THE NEXT step?” and so on. They begin to see that mathematical solutions may be complex when taken in totality but are ultimately made of simple things when taken down to the atomic level.

The very fact that solutions even have an “atomic level” and consist of irreducible simple steps chained together in a logical flow is a profound idea for a lot of students, and if they learn this and forget all their calculus, I’ll still feel like they had a successful experience in my class. For this reason alone teachers everywhere — particularly at the high school level, where mechanical fluency is perhaps more prominent than at the college level — ought to be making W|A a fixture of their instructional strategies.

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Wolfram|Alpha and the shrinking future of the graphing calculator

Mathematica
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By now, you’ve probably heard about Wolfram|Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that was recently rolled out by the makers of Mathematica. If you haven’t, here’s a good place to start. There is considerable debate among ed-tech people as to exactly what kind of impact Wolfram|Alpha, abbreviated W|A, is going to have in education. For me, W|A is still a little raw and gives back  too many “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” responses when given mathematically legitimate (at least they seem so to me) queries. But the potential is there for W|A to be a game-changing technological advance, doing for quantitative information what Google did for text and web-based information back in the 90’s. (W|A is already its own verb.)

One thing that seems clear is that, with technology available that is free and powerful and hardware-agnostic, technology that previously has ruled the ed-tech roost can’t survive for much longer. I’m thinking particularly of the graphing calculator. These have been a fixture in math education, especially at the pre-college level, for the better part of 20 years. But now here is W|A, which can graph functions, perform symbolic algebra and calculus computations, even solve differential equations and do number theory and statistics and all manner of interesting stuff besides, including but very much not limited to mathematics. In short, it does everything a graphing calculator does. But, importantly: W|A is free, runs on any web-enabled device (including, as I can attest to by experience, an iPod touch), is fast, is portable (see the links I just shared?), and — perhaps most importantly of all —  has an army of developers who are constantly adding new features into the system.

You could spend $150 to get the latest and greatest from Texas Instruments, a handheld device that does what a graphing calculator does — but no more. (Here’s my first-hand take on the NSpire and details on what I see as its demerits.) Or, you could spend a little more than twice that much and get a netbook computer that gives you access to W|A as well as a suite of office tools and more. Computing hardware has become so small and cheap, and online quantitative tools so functional and powerful, that it’s very hard to see how graphing calculators can survive the next 5 years.

If graphing calculators do survive, it will be for one main reason: The AP exams. I was talking with a local high school AP Calculus teacher this week who impressed on me that  she cannot afford to drop graphing calculators and move on to using netbooks or some other more sensible technology because, quite simply, there are questions on the AP Calculus exams that require the use of graphing calculators. Students have to have total fluency with graphing calculators — and not some other, calculator-like technology — in order to do as well as they possibly can on the exam, which is part of this teacher’s professional responsibility. The AP already succeeded in killing the TI-92 calculator — a really good technology for its time, when laptops still weighed 15 pounds and costs thousands of dollars — for no better reason than because it had a QWERTY keyboard. Today, the AP might succeed in keeping W|A and other similiarly useful, perhaps even transformative, technologies out of the hands of students pretty much for the same reasons, which is a real shame and quite backwards-looking.

But then again, I don’t know what the AP folks have in mind. Perhaps there are plans afoot to migrate the AP exams away from dependency on graphing calculators. It certainly wouldn’t take much for the AP folks to write their own lightweight graphing tool that does nothing more than plot functions, find intersection points, shade in areas, and do numerical integration (rarely are graphing calculators used on the AP free-response portion for more than these four things). Make it extremely basic, put it on the web, free for all to use, and provide it on specialized computers for students taking the exam. That way, students can learn how to use technology rather than learn how to use a graphing calculator, and both teachers and students can be freer to choose the extent and type of technology they want to use in their classes. And such a thing would probably have a longer shelf life than any TI calculator for sale or in production.

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