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Re: Mathematica and Education

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  • Subject: [mg65722] Re: [mg65102] Mathematica and Education
  • From: "fizzy" <fizzycist at>
  • Date: Sun, 16 Apr 2006 03:48:47 -0400 (EDT)
  • References: <>
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

[This post has been delayed due to email problems - moderator]


I'm that "student" by the way.....and actually I'm 61 years old.....I 
decided to go back to school and take a course in Electromagnetics 
especially now that I had a tool like Mathematica to work with.......I write 
this reponse because I wonder why you wrote  "proudly 
proclaimed"...? if I should be criticized for what I had 
if the enjoyment that I get from using Mathematica, in whatever way I can to 
help me improve my work and , actually, to enjoy it all the more, deserves 
some kind of criticism, especially this  idea of the glory of 'pencil and 
paper' fact, now I have this 'beautiful' Notebook with all my 
calculations, clear as a bell.....which I can use over and over again 
whenever I need ....which I can re-read easily.....and soon I will take the 
second sequence in the course........I've worked with a theorist at 
work...and I've watched him write pages and pages of 'pencil and 
paper'....and often to find a mistake on the first page....and then have to 
re-do all the other took me years of coaxing and convincing to 
get him to use Mathematica.....and that's because , like you, he believed in 
this assinine idea of "a fool with a tool is a fool"....he just didnt get he finally uses Mathematica ....and has learned that when he 
makes a mistake on the first page, he only has to correct that, re-run his 
program and then get 'correct' results....took me 5 years of continual 
persuasion to get him to use Mathematica......."No, a fool who wants to be a 
fool  , remains a fool....a fool who finds a tool and works hard at it  and 
learns how to use it and learns from a group like Mathgroup how to use it 
correctly is no longer a fool or, at least, he's much less of a 
fool"....and, as far as Mathematica goes, I find myself a very happy 
scientific fool....

I think you really misunderstand the nature of the average scientist and 
engineer....he wants to improve his technical skill at all 
costs.....Mathematica and Mathgroup have helped me enormously to improve my 
technical skills.....and by the way, I always use a calculator to add 
numbers and fractions....always....because I hate that idiotic and tedious 
procedure....and when I do it by hand, I invariably come up with the wrong 
result.....much better to be a fool and use a calculator and get the right 

Let me ask this....if using Mathematica is so easy, so straight forward, and 
so on, then why is there Mathgroup at all??...

And the answer is really very's not....and knowing the math 
and how to use it is not straight forward....and the number of interesting 
and enlightening comments by the people in Mathgroup who are very  astute at 
mathematics  and who explain the math behind the commands is very 

I have learned that those people who know only the Mathematica Command 
structure will not really get very far with Mathematica.....and that only 
those people with 'in depth' comprehension will ever get the full benefits 
of Mathematica....I am not mathematically I have to have 
Mathematica help me....but I always try to learn from any way that 
I and Mathgroup have helped me in countless ways to understand 
mathematics better.....and since I'm a physicist this learning has been 
invaluable to help me understand physics much better...hence, the final 
result, that is, much more enjoyment in the work that I do....which is 
really the bottom line, for me anyway.....

Jerry Blimbaum

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "King, Peter R" <peter.king at>
To: mathgroup at
Subject: [mg65722] [mg65102] Mathematica and Education

> David,
> I think actually we are possibly talking at cross purposes. Although I
> also think this leads to some interesting points. I was responding in
> the first instance to a post from a student who had proudly proclaimed
> that he had done all of his assigments without using pen and paper at
> all and only in Mathematica. My view is that this is dangerous for the
> reasons outlined. And in fact my concern is not for the professional
> technical expert (or the prospective ones). In my experience a good
> student who is capable and motivated to understand the material will do
> so and tools like Mathematica can make this an even more exciting
> experience. For them I would agree 100% with what you have said.
> However, poorer students will simply learn how to use the tool as a
> black box. Superficially they will look as skilled as the others because
> they can produce a glossy presentation and they can end up causing alot
> of trouble (I am absolutely serious about this I have seen it - not with
> Mathematica but with other commercial software, which is where my fool
> with a tool quote came from). for weak students they will think that
> learning how to do something substitutes for learning how to understand
> something. As for education for the masses actually I do think there is
> a point. As well as learning about Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven,
> Michealangelo, Cezanne and so on every civilised person should know
> Newton's laws (with Einstein's amendments), thermodynamics, trigonmetry,
> algebra, calculus and the principles of scientific study.
> My anology with calculators is to show that reliance on using a tool
> can weaken the more traditional skills. Not in itself a problem. As you
> very eloquently pointed out I cannot sharpen a spear and hunt for my own
> food, it is easier to go down to the supermarket. If shops ceased to
> exist I would be stuck! The point being that there are some
> cirucmstances when we don't have calculators about us or when it is
> easier or even better not to use them (I think it is a great skill that
> is underestimated and lost to be able to estimate answers to problems
> without doing an "exact" calculation). I make this analogy, not because
> I think that Mathematica is a glorified calculator (it is much more than
> that) but because I remember the discussions 20-30 years ago when
> calculators were first introduced. Many people in education argued that
> they would enable students to do more calcuations, more quickly and get
> on to the "more interesting stuff" because they weren't being held back
> by "boring" caclulations. In fact I think for weaker students the
> opposite has happened. They do the caclulations but don't understand
> them - as I said they don't really understand the concept of numbers at
> all. This hasn't happened with more advanced mathematics (yet?) because
> the tools haven't really been available for so long but the same
> arguments are being made. My concern is that the same mistakes will be
> made and we will end up with a less mathematically literate population
> then before. Now this is not inevitable and so this is the real
> challenge. How can we ensure that these tools are used appropriately to
> improve mathematical skills and not used lazily to reduce them. There
> have been some excellent and thought provoking examples of how people on
> this list have done this. My fear as that these few sites of excellence
> will be outnumbered by rather lazy teachers (& students) for whom
> Mathematica will used as a black box. I hope I am proved wrong.
> I must also confess that I have another sneaking fear. I first learnt
> progamming by writing FORTRAN IV on punched cards on mainframes. I could
> probably still do it tomorrow if such things existed. However, the
> energy barrier to learning more modern languages has meant that I
> haven't bothered. OK so I'm a dinosaur and therefore out of touch. My
> worry is for people who have only learnt how to use MAthematica, when
> that is superceded (and again I am sure that it will) will they have the
> ability to move on to something else if they haven't learnt the
> underlying mathemtics properly. However, the mathematics is much more
> enduring.
> Anyway I don't really want to keep batting this around, I am sure
> everyone knows my point of view by now. I hope the message I have got
> across and that I suspect we would agree on is: anyone claiming to use
> mathematics must really understand the basic maths (however they are
> taught it); there is no doubt that modern technologies have an essential
> and deep rooted part to play in education, research and practical
> application in mathematical science; the challenge is to ensure that
> this is done thoughtfully and carefully to ensure best practice and
> maintainence of fundamental skills (rather than erosion as I feel has
> happened in some sectors with numeracy skills). I would be very pleased
> and interested to hear about how this can be done (and perhaps I can
> sneakily take advantage of some of these ideas in my own teaching).
> Best wishes,
> Peter

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