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Re: Mathematica as a New Approach to Teaching Maths

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  • Subject: [mg127508] Re: Mathematica as a New Approach to Teaching Maths
  • From: Alexei Boulbitch <Alexei.Boulbitch at>
  • Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2012 22:14:17 -0400 (EDT)
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There is a letter written in thirties by the great Russian theorist, Lev Landau, to the rector of a technical university, where Landau taught at the time. The letter discussed  useful and useless (or even evil) parts of the content of mathematics curriculum for physicists and engineers. This letter is rather well known in Russia, but, I guess, is absolutely unknown outside, in part due to its language: it is written in Russian, and partially due to political difficulties of the time when it has been written.

This letter claims, in particular, that mathematicians load students by what Landau ironically called "the mathematical lyrics" instead of teaching them to get to the point of their calculations. The lyrics for him were multiple theorems together with their proofs heavily inserted into the course, especially the multiple existence theorems. Nothing changed , however, since the Landau letter has been written and made public, and when 40 years later I was taught the university mathematics, I had to learn an impressive amount of such a lyrics, which I almost NEVER then used during all my life in theoretical physics. In contrast I was very poorly taught to calculate, and if I can do it now, it is in spite, rather than due to these mathematics courses.

Reading the Landau letter it is amazing, how much in common it has with ideas of the talk Konrad Wolfram gave on occasion of the Mathematica Symposium at London this summer. Of course, at Landau time no computers (let alone, the computer algebra) were available. Now with all this at hand, Landau approach can be applied on the new level, as we all here understand.

Fred Simmons in his paper ( ) states in particular that in some cases a straightforward application of Mathematica functions may be not enough and some "deeper" understanding of mathematical properties staying behind are necessary to go to the successful end. Here the term "deeper" (I believe) should be taken again in the sense of having an idea of how this could be calculated "by hand", and with this knowledge to be able to make it "on screen". I think the argumentation of Prof. Simmons in the paper was also in favour of such type of a deepening. However, one may understand the word "deeper" also in the "lyric" sense. In my own practice I still met no case where any deeper knowledge of theunderlying "lyrics" was necessary, but often need to go deeper in the first sense.

However, one statement seems to contradict the other, at least to some extent.  This contradiction, however, may be solved by letting mathematicians teach mathematics going  "in depth" in any sense. Instead one can move Mathematica-based teaching to other courses that are (i) heavily based on mathematics, but are (ii) calculation (rather than proof)-oriented. One course fitting to these requirements is, of course, physics, and to go this way one might start with the Experimental Physics taught during the very first semester. Some minimal Mathematica knowledge might be introduced in its very beginning, and one may go on gradually introducing Mathematica functions and ideas "on demand". No need to say that problems and tests to the courses should be done in Mathematica. That may be the way around. About the end of the Experimental Physics courses the students should be able to use Mathematica themselves to solve their problems and should have such a habit.

I would like to especially stress that as much as I see, the massive use of Mathematica during lectures should not exclude the "talk and chalk" sessions. The latter are important since the step by step calculations done slowly in front of students have a potential to demystify science, and this is important.

Of course, in order to be able to realize that program one needs a class equipped with computers and Mathematica license, and also home licenses for the students involved, as =A9er=FDch Jakub notes in his post.
Finally, this approach is, of course, not applicable to all types of students, but only to some of them. Say, to those adhering to Physics or Engineering. But one should start with something. May the analogous approach be done say, with chemistry or biology courses? I do not know, I never taught any of these. Somebody else may be able to  answer this question.

Alexei BOULBITCH, Dr., habil.
ZAE Weiergewan,
11, rue Edmond Reuter,
L-5326 Contern, LUXEMBOURG

Office phone :  +352-2454-2566
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mobile phone:  +49 151 52 40 66 44

e-mail: alexei.boulbitch at<mailto:alexei.boulbitch at>

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