This afternoon St Andrew’s College hosted Mr Craig Bauling from Wolfram Research as he gave a presentation to a number of teachers from the Canterbury Maths Association. The opportunity for this presentation came about after Craig had seen a post I had written in June 2014 entitled Wolfram Interactive Models Bring Learning To Life and distributed it amongst Wolfram employees. He also offered to present to interested teachers when he came to New Zealand in September. I reached out to Dean McKenzie (Head of Maths at St Andrew’s College) and Stephen McConnachie (eLearning Co-ordinator at Middleton Grange School) and together we managed to get this session promoted amongst Canterbury schools. Over twenty staff from different schools around Christchurch listened to Craig’s 2 hour presentation where he covered:
- Wolfram Mathematica
- Wolfram Alpha
- Wolfram Demonstrations (using CDF files and web plugin)
This is a powerful desktop application that allows teachers and students to do a range of different things, including writing text books, creating and sitting assessment as well as making Powerpoint-like presentations. It utilises the power of the cloud based WolframAlpha to return some results / graphing abilities, and one of the key strengths is students can enter questions in “natural language.” The programme then interprets this and formats it into the correct syntax for Mathematica to complete the equation.
This makes it very easy to learn, and there are a number of “palettes” that guide teachers or students through the correct syntax of more advanced formulas. The state of Victoria, Australia, has provided Mathematica to students from Yr4 up in schools to help them across all curriculum areas, not just Maths (Craig said Physics and Chemistry are the biggest users of Mathematica, followed by Maths, but English and Social Sciences also make use of it).
Possibly this was the one tool that most of the teachers attending had been exposed to before. Rather than functioning as a search engine like Google or Bing that traditionally return thousands of pages that might contain the answer to your search query, WolframAlpha tries to provide the actual answer to your question.
One of the examples given was “What is the boiling temperature of water on Mt Cook?” Pulling on information stored in the databases WolframAlpha has access to, it knows both the height/elevation of Mt Cook, and the scientific principle of how elevation affects boiling temperatures. It returned: What was neat to see was the results returned in the metric system – using Geo-IP technology, it knew we were in New Zealand and returned results accordingly.
Another fascinating example was the results returned to the esoteric question “What was the weather like on Keith Urban’s 24th birthday?” Again, drawing on the extensive meteorological information WolframAlpha has access to, it showed the results for Christchurch, New Zealand (again, recognising our location based on IP Address):
These held quite a bit of appeal given they could easily be embedded into a school’s Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Ultranet – here is the video I created earlier showing how to do this:
Installation of CDF Plugin & Embedding Wolfram Demonstration Model into Moodle
The interactive nature of these models, where students can manipulate the input or data, make them perfect for embedding into a Moodle Forum or Assignment activity, allowing students to submit answers directly into Moodle without needing to use any other software.
What was reassuring was that all demonstration models are vetted for accuracy by staff at Wolfram, source code must be made available so teachers could modify the models if they wished to, and the model can be downloaded as a separate CDF file or embedded directly into a web page. Here are some examples of different Wolfram Demonstration Models:
Selection of Wolfram Demonstration Models
The feedback from the teachers that attended was very positive about the session and I am sure that many will go away and look at the free products and also evaluate whether licensed products are purchased for teaching staff and/or students.