WolframAlpha, a search engine that launched several weeks ago, runs on the sophisticated computational software Mathematica, to compute answers to questions. Unlike google or other search engines, it accomplishes this by using built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledges; massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties. As Jeffrey R. Young writes in The Chronicle today, “It makes a graphing calculator look like a slide rule.”
What will that mean for the study of mathematics? Will students be allowed to use WolframAlpha inside or outside of the classroom? Professors have shown mixed sentiments of both excitement and caution, and it’s making for an interesting discussion about learning in general.
Roger A. Freedman, a physics lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara summarized: “the greatest challenges that science and math students face are conceptual, not computational, and neither calculators nor WolframAlpha can do much about that.”
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Calculating Web Site Could Ignite New Campus ‘Math War’ [Chronicle, 6/12/09]