Getting Help with Math Homework

I’m lousy at math. As my son and daughter started venturing into analytic trigonomtry, precalculus and then calculus, I was utterly useless as a resource.

For parents, whose children need help with math homework, there is now a remarkable resource available that is making math teachers across the country both excited and nervous. It’s called WolframAlpha.

WolframAlpha, which was released on the Web last month, is a computational knowledge engine. In contrast to Google, WolframAlpha provides answers by doing computations internally rather than searching the web and producing links.

The new search engine contains more than 10 trillion pieces of data and 50,000+ types of algorithms and models.

You can plug any math problem into WolframAlpha and not only receive the answer, but also obtain all the steps it took to obtain it. Here is an example of WolframAlpha providing the answer to a  trigonometry calculation.

According to some math professors, WolframAlpha has the potential to make a bigger impact on math instruction than the graphing calculator. A teacher who maintains a blog at TeachingCollegeMath.com, however, suggests that WolframAlpha could encourage cheaters. (Duh.)

There could be implications with academic dishonesty, especially in online and hybrid courses. We will all have to individually decide whether W|A is off limits, and if so, how we can possibly enforce it. Ready or not, W|A is now available on any computer with Internet access and on most SmartPhones.

It is up to us to think about (with as much advanced notice as possible) how we want to embrace, adopt, accommodate, or regulate the use of W|A in our courses. This is a conversation we should have in every department at every level of mathematics…

WolframAlpha  also provides answers to a wide variety of other topics including physics, engineering, finance, chemistry, geography, nutrition, health and medicine.

The site can also provide a lifetime of cocktail party fodder. When I plugged in my date of birth, for instance, I found out that I’m 19,552 days old. I also discovered that about a half million Americans share my son’s first name — Benjamin. Who knew?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy  is the author of The College Solution and she also write a college blog at CBSMoneyWatch.com.

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