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Re: Mathematica-assisted learning was .. Re: Speak errors

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  • Subject: [mg130647] Re: Mathematica-assisted learning was .. Re: Speak errors
  • From: Richard Fateman <fateman at>
  • Date: Sun, 28 Apr 2013 05:16:55 -0400 (EDT)
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On 4/27/2013 9:58 PM, Helen Read wrote:
> On 4/26/2013 4:24 AM, Richard Fateman wrote:
>> I note that the MIT regular calculus, 18.01
>> apparently uses a computer algebra system, but not Mathematica.
>> I do not see how it is used or how it could be used on the exams.

> I teach calculus in a classroom (we have two such rooms) equipped with a
> computer for each student. We use Mathematica routinely throughout the
> semester, in and out of class, and most of the students like having it
> and using it. We have a site license that allows the students to install
> Mathematica on their own laptops so they can use it outside of class.

I was speaking of how the MIT course could use computer algebra.  If you 
look at the review problems
you see that quite a few of them are trivial if you just type them in to
a computer algebra system, and presumably would not be much of a 
learning experience if in fact they were just typed in. Others require
explain/prove/give examples.

I have no doubt that a calculus course could be constructed using 
computer algebra systems --- I would hope it would be quite different, 
emphasizing (say) the calculational aspects of the subject and then 
observing the symbolic, almost coincidental, solutions to the same
evaluations.  It sounds like you are doing something along those lines.

It does not surprise me that MIT is still doing the same old thing; when
I was covering recitation sections, the main lecturer was Arthur 
Mattuck. In 1971.  The notes used in 2013 are apparently by Arthur Mattuck.

It is presumably possible to do things at U. Vermont without overcoming 
such massive inertia.  I have encountered substantial inertia at UC 
Berkeley in mathematics and engineering, too.

On the other hand, the question remains for any of these courses as to 
whether one can objectively demonstrate that students learn calculus 
more than those in a control group not using computers.  I am not 
doubting for a moment that instructors who like computers prefer 
teaching using them. (Including me.)  Yet there are still math 
instructors who, for whatever reason, prefer not.
<snip> ....
>  I find that
> overall they seem to end up with a better understanding of series than
> my students did years ago when all we did was paper-and-pencil
> convergence (which the students found to be terribly abstract).

Can you quantify this? (This is somewhat unfair -- you are stating your 
own observations and I'm asking you to be an expert on human factors, 
learning, etc.  I've often seen and participated in "innovation" in 
teaching and rarely tried to prove the innovation had positive results!
Nevertheless, it would be nice to have "evidence".)
> My students do use Mathematica on exams, but not for everything. I make
> up exams in two parts. Part 1 is paper and pencil only, and I keep the
> computers "locked" (using monitoring software installed on all the
> student computers). When a student finishes Part 1, s/he hands it in and
> I unlock that particular computer (which I can do remotely from the
> instructor's desk), and the student has full use of Mathematica for Part
> 2. I can monitor what the students are doing on their computers from the
> instructor's station (and of course I get up and walk around and answer
> questions if they get stuck on something like a missing comma). We have
> a printer in the room so that the students can print their work and
> staple it to their test paper when they hand it in.

I have no doubt that there are interesting calculations that are vastly
easier to do with the help of a computer algebra system.

I would be interested to see what kinds of questions you can ask on a 
calculus exam that (a) test something that students are expected to know 
from a calculus course and (b) require (or are substantially assisted 
by) Mathematica.
> I've been teaching this way since the late 1990s, and wouldn't dream of
> going back to doing it without technology.

Another question, based on my own observations ...  If you are on 
sabbatical and not available to teach this course, does someone else 
pick it up and teach it the same way?  What I've seen is that when the 
computer enthusiast is not available, the course reverts to something 
rather more traditional.


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