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MathGroup Archive 1993

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Re: Mathematica courses in College

  • To: MathGroup at yoda.physics.unc.edu
  • Subject: Re: Mathematica courses in College
  • From: fateman at peoplesparc.berkeley.edu (Richard Fateman)
  • Date: Thu, 19 Aug 93 08:54:53 PDT

I think it is a mistake to give a course on Mathematica per se,
for college credit, except perhaps for some nominal amount.
I feel the same way about Fortran, COBOL, Lisp, Matlab, Maple, ...

A course in "Problem solving with Mathematica"   which is what
Nancy Blachman teaches, may be justified if the emphasis is on
Problem Solving.  I teach a course "Structure and Interpretation of
Computer Programs"  which some people mistakenly view as
"the Scheme course"  because students read and write programs written
in Scheme.  But that is not the point of it.

I think that the accreditation teams who periodically visit colleges
have a similar view.  I would hope that they would be quite unhappy
with a CS degree assembled from 
1 unit of "Programming in Assembler for 8086"
1 unit of "Programming for Sparc"
...
1 unit of "Programming in Fortran"
1 unit of "Programming in ... "
...
1 unit of "Programming in Lotus 123"

...

Now if you are going to award 1 unit for learning (the first, presumably)
programming language, should that language be Mathematica?

For CS students, I think most CS faculty would answer, resoundingly, NO!
For non-CS but engineering/physics students, there is perhaps more of 
a debate. These are the people who, until recently, and maybe now,
are  taught Fortran 77.  I think they should be taught Matlab or similar
languages, and I have also argued for introducing symbolic manipulation.

Ideally, this would be in a course on Problem Solving, or Scientific
Computation, or Numerical Computation (not usually "Numerical
Analysis" which is more mathematical in orientation) or
Programming per se.

In spite of a recent book or two, I think that Mathematica's treatment
of numbers is so at odds with conventional numerical error treatment,
its algorithm speeds at odds with usual analysis, and its bag of
tricks so undocumented, that a course using it for numerical analysis
would have to ignore or explain away too many anomalies to be
comfortable. Why should a professor have to spend time on this?
Your comfort may vary.

RJF






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