How Wolfram|Alpha Has Become a “Cool Tool” in My Classroom
[Editor's Note: This blog entry is a guest post from Laura Ketcham, a 7th grade technology instructor and coordinator at the Aventura City of Excellence School (ACES) in Aventura, Florida. If you are interested in sharing how you've incorporated Wolfram|Alpha into your everyday life inside or outside the classroom, please contact our blog team at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
I read the buzz about Wolfram|Alpha in an article in PC World this past summer. It was billed as a “computational” search engine with the advantage that the results of the computed search appear on one results page, not just in a list of links you need to search through to find the information. I quickly realized that Wolfram|Alpha is an innovative tool that I could definitely incorporate in the classroom! I am a 7th grade technology instructor and coordinator at the Aventura City of Excellence School (ACES) in Aventura, Florida. My students often use the web to find information for a variety of classroom activities, as well as for research in other classes. The students follow a process in which they evaluate websites to determine whether they contain reliable information that can be included for assignments; it’s one of the major topics I cover in the year-long technology course. Wolfram|Alpha provided me with a “cool tool” to introduce to the students that they knew could be trusted as reliable source. They can use Wolfram|Alpha in a variety of ways to “calculate” factual information.
What I really found helpful about Wolfram|Alpha was the Examples page. This provided me with a springboard to computing data in Wolfram|Alpha and with a quick way to evaluate its usefulness as a tool in the classroom. This is definitely a great place for teachers, of any grade, to get started!
I introduced Wolfram|Alpha to my students during a six-week project where the students infused Web 2.0 technology to build a website about South Florida oceans and beaches. They used Wolfram|Alpha to learn about a variety of topics that they had to include in their sites. Several examples are the taxonomy of a variety of plants and animals that call South Florida beaches home and the GPS/satellite technology being used to track a loggerhead sea turtle that the class adopted.
The students have continued to use this resource for a variety of projects and activities. Wolfram|Alpha was used when the students had to write an MLA-formatted research paper about a famous individual. They looked up the individual and then they were able to find out basic facts about the person such as their birth, death, and occupation. Recently, they used it to create a presentation about a career of their choice. They used Wolfram|Alpha to look up the median salary statistics for their career nationwide and in Florida, and then created a chart and table with this data for their presentations. During the second semester, students will use Wolfram|Alpha for a variety of new projects. One is to complete research on various international cities that they are going to make into mystery podcasts. The students will use Wolfram|Alpha as a research tool to develop hints for the location of their cities. They will then write scripts, record their hints, and post their podcasts online for their fellow students to solve. The participating students could then also use Wolfram|Alpha to help them solve the mystery locations.
I found this tool so innovative and useful that I decided to include it in an in-house monthly newsletter that I send to my coworkers at ACES called Links for Learning. Wolfram|Alpha was well received by the teachers, especially in the middle school. Our business education teacher, Mr. Goldberg, plans to use Wolfram|Alpha for his unit on the stock market. Our 7th grade science teacher, Ms. Cohen, plans to use Wolfram|Alpha for her lesson on applications of Newton’s second law. For math classes, it could be used at home by the students to review the steps to solve various math problems, as Wolfram|Alpha has a very detailed mathematic computation section with step-by-step instructions ending with the correct final answer. Math teachers could use Wolfram|Alpha as a visual aid by presenting the problem and then explaining the steps to the students while it is projected on the board. In geography, a teacher could use it to show students a variety of maps and land forms, or national statistics could be displayed for a specific country or in comparison to other countries around the world. Wolfram|Alpha also provides intricate computations on words, dates, times, languages, medicine, and much more, which can all be incorporated in a variety of classes at the K–12 level. The possibilities for infusing Wolfram|Alpha into education are endless!
I presented Wolfram|Alpha as a highlighted resource as part of my concurrent session at the Florida Educational Technology Conference held in Orlando, Florida in January 2010. Feel free to visit my presentation page, which includes advantages of using Wolfram|Alpha in the classroom, how I have used it, how other teachers could use it, and a step-by-step process of how to get started with using Wolfram|Alpha in education.