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RE: Mathematica courses in College

  • To: "mathgroup-adm at"%MAILER.dnet at
  • Subject: RE: Mathematica courses in College
  • From: wellin at (Paul Wellin)
  • Date: Sat, 21 Aug 93 15:34:30 -0700

> I am investigating what has been done in regards to creating
> a course for college students on Mathematica. I know many integrate
> Mathematica into existing courses and I am aware of the course
> at U of I taught by Richard Gaylord which is stand-alone. And of
> course there is the Nancy Blackman book which she uses at Stanford.
> Does anyone know of any other example of a stand-alone Mathematica course
> taught at a college for credit?

> Don Piele                   piele at


For the past few years, I have a taught a course on computational mathematics
in the Math Department at Sonoma State University. It has been offered every
other semester (until this past year, due to budget cuts) to upper division
math and science students. 

The goals of the course included teaching mathematics that was computationally
intensive and otherwise out of reach to paper and pencil study, as well
as studying some issues in numerical mathematics (floating point issues, 
roundoff, ill-conditioning, etc.). There were two unstated and somewhat 
sneaky goals to (1) train students to become Mathematica lab assistants in
our calculus courses, and (2) offer training to any professors in the school
of Nat. Sciences in the use of Mathematica.

The course met for 2 hours per week, part of the time was spent on demonstration
of various aspects of Mathematica (mostly in the beginning of the semester),
and part of the time on computational issues or introducing new material.
I tried to reserve about 50% of class time for students to work in the lab
with me coming around to talk to each student each week.

I assigned 6 extended homework projects, and a project that was assigned mid
way thru the semester and due at the end of the semester. The project required
research, writing, programming, and a 15-20 presentation to the class. 

I tried to change the topics covered each semester somewhat, so for example,
one semester when I had mostly math majors, we spent the semester on 
computational number theory (factoring, primality tests, Fermat's theorem,
etc.). Another semester when I had mostly computer science students, we 
focused on dynamical systems and visualization issues.

I advertised the course to faculty around the campus, and each semester
about 5-6 faculty dropped in at their leisure to pick up whatever they 
wished. Some had no background with Mathematica, and so spent more time
at the beginning of the semester. Others wished to learn how to program
in Mathematica and so only came in about 1/3 of the way into the course.

The course was general enough to allow physics, math, biology, chemistry,
CS, geology students to all benefit. Each took a solid programming 
background back to their respective disciplines where their fellow 
students and professors were generally amazed at how quickly and easily
they could program complex systems and generate images for visualization.
This took care of any advertising I might have had to do to get future 

If I lived in a different state from California where it is now considered 
good fortune if our budgets are only cut 5% per year, this course would 
undoubtedly still be offered. It had consistently good marks from students
and professors alike.

As to the question of whether or not Mathematica is the right language and
package to use for such courses, I can only say it was (and is) right for
us. It meets our needs of being a good symbolic package, good numerical
routines (others might disagree), excellent graphics, Notebook interface
that makes it easy for students to pick up, and an excellent programming
language that allows our faculty to do their research in (logicians writing
3-valued logics in Mma, numerical analysts). In addition, the wealth of 
materials available as supplements is vast.

Paul Wellin
Department of Mathematics
Sonoma State University
Rohnert Park, CA  94928

phone: 707-664-2368
fax:   707-664-2505
email: wellin at (NeXTmail ok)

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