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Homework on Autopilot

Published August 30, 2000

Why teach calculus students what a revolutionary software system can solve automatically?

August 30, 2000–Wolfram Research has announced the release of a stand-alone version of Calculus WIZ, a revolutionary software product for first-year calculus students. With Calculus WIZ, students’ computers can now solve over 90 percent of the homework problems assigned in a typical calculus course. Just as the introduction of the pocket calculator led to serious debate among math instructors, Calculus WIZ raises serious questions about how mathematics should be taught in the age of the computer.

Calculus WIZ was conceived by Keith Stroyan, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Iowa and long-time crusader in the cause of calculus reform, a movement in math education that stresses conceptual understanding over rote “cookbook” calculations.

“Traditional calculus instruction is dominated by the ‘template examples and exercises’ paradigm,” says Stroyan. “Students work three sets of five exercises each, just like the three examples a few pages earlier in the text. This activity has some value–it builds confidence through practice–but it doesn’t do anything to develop a deep understanding. That means it leaves a big gap in the students’ ability to apply calculus to more open-ended problems.”

In a typical introductory calculus sequence, so much time is spent learning and practicing specific pencil-and-paper techniques that the underlying theory is often shortchanged. “The traditional courses tend not to have any time left after students work all the template exercises,” Stroyan notes.

However, the templates themselves have become standardized through hundreds of years of math education, a fact that makes it possible for Calculus WIZ to contain over a hundred “solvers,” each one addressing a different exercise template. To solve a given homework problem, the student needs only to fire up Calculus WIZ, find the appropriate solver, type in the details of the exercise, and then sit back as the computer solver does the work.

A complete electronic calculus textbook, including exercises, is another part of Calculus WIZ, making it an effective tool for self-study. However, what sets it apart from every other calculus study aid is the problem-solving power it gets from Mathematica, the leading technical computing system. Calculus WIZ includes a special version of Mathematica‘s “brain,” the extraordinary collection of mathematical algorithms and knowledge that is the heart of Mathematica‘s computational power.

Will Calculus WIZ change the way that calculus is taught? Probably not all by itself–but anyone who remembers how pocket calculators changed math education can see the signs of a similar revolution taking shape.

The stand-alone edition of Calculus WIZ is available for Windows 95/98/NT/2000. It requires 160 MB of disk space for hard-disk installation. The suggested retail price is $69.50 (U.S. and Canada). For more information about Calculus WIZ, visit http://www.wolfram.com/wiz.