WolframAlpha, the High-Powered Math Engine

By Sean Cavanagh — June 18, 2009 1 min read
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A new Web site that performs very complex math calculations at breakneck speed is causing controversy among some math experts, who wonder if it will discourage students from being forced to work out problems the old-fashioned way.

As this nice story in the Chronicle of Higher Education rightly notes, it’s a variation on the unceasing debate over the role of calculators in math classes, rewritten for the age of the math super-engine.

The online tool, called WolframAlpha, was created by Stephen Wolfram, the entrepreneur who invented Mathematica, one of the first computer math engines. It basically provides answers to questions that viewers type into a box. The site then uses a math engine, known as a “computer algebra system,” to pump out an answer, the article explains. (There are other easy-to-use features unrelated to math, which I tested, such as a search tool which can spit out information for any given date—such as a birthday, or a location, or a publicly traded stock.)

These online math engines are not new, the story says, but they typically charge users a hefty fee, unlike WolframAlpha, which is free. “The goal of WolframAlpha is to bring high-level mathematics to the masses, by letting users type in problems in plain English and delivering instant results,” the story says.

The story focuses mostly on the implications for higher education, rather than K-12, presumably because a lot more pretty advanced math goes on there. College faculty seem divided on whether to embrace the technology or ban it. For everybody who’s coped with questions over calculators’ place in classrooms, this will sound very familiar. For the math teachers and mathematicians out there: Do you think WolframAlpha has the potential to affect math teaching on any significant scale in high schools, or even earlier grades?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.