Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Wolfram Archive

Silicon Valley High School Teaching Students to Think More Mathematica-lly

Published January 13, 2003

“The structure and syntax of Mathematica mirrors rather fundamentally the structure and syntax of mathematics. Learning Mathematica and learning to use it, to write with it, would provide valuable exercise in thinking mathematically.” So states the prestigious Harker School’s website about its decision to adopt Mathematica as a curriculum standard in its newly added Upper School math and science classes.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, where virtually the entire student body has at least one relative employed in the high-tech sector, Harker students have a higher-than-average interest in pursuing careers in math, science, and technical fields. Officials at the century-old school are convinced that learning Mathematica now will help better prepare students for their university studies and future careers. Last year’s first class of high school graduates has already gone on to an impressive array of universities including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

The Harker School feels it is important that students utilize technology throughout the curriculum, integrated in appropriate forms from the early grades on. Says Joanne Mason, Director of Math Studies, “Computers are used in every conceivable way in all classes.” All upper-level students use web-authoring software to prepare assignments and projects, and most classes require the use of online conferencing for collaborative projects and discussions.

After an exhaustive evaluation of the options, Mason says that she and her colleagues were sold on Mathematica when they reviewed Version 4.0 because of its interface. “Mathematica offered the ability to do advanced calculations, symbolic mathematics, graphics, and word processing–all at the same time, in the same document, on any computer platform our students may be running,” she says. Although some teachers use Mathematica as a presentation tool, Mason adds that the primary use of Mathematica at Harker is for students to work on homework and other projects.

After attending several Mathematica training workshops to ensure that students would have a positive experience, Harker teachers also felt that “this was a great program and that, in fact, the learning curve was not that steep.” This feeling prompted them to use Mathematica in all upper-level math courses instead of just the advanced ones as originally planned. In fact, although last year the teachers devoted the first two full weeks of class to teaching Mathematica, this year they skipped the initial instruction. “We wanted to spend time on our core subject content, and what we’ve found is that it hasn’t made any difference with the students; they’ve been able to ‘pick it up’ pretty well as we go along.”

Harker now has an unlimited license program that enables the school to install Mathematica on every computer on campus, to provide teachers with personal licenses for home use, and to supply individual copies to upper-level students for use on their required personal laptop computers (for an affordable fee). A Premier Service agreement entitles the school to complimentary technical support and upgrades for the life of the agreement, and upon graduation new alumni are given permanent licenses to take with them to college.

Mathematica‘s success at Harker has encouraged school officials to spread the news to others, primarily through its website, which contains extensive tutorials, samples of student projects, and other information. Plans are also under way for a Mathematica training institute that will focus on the design, development, and management of project-centered curricula. The institute will facilitate training of Harker staff as well as make its services available to other schools in the area.

Since implementing Mathematica, Harker teachers have noticed an increase in students’ interest in very challenging math and programming research. The teachers also feel that Mathematica reinforces their project-oriented curriculum since it supports “learning math by doing-math” and encourages projects that require collaborative work. As the Harker website states, “Writing mathematics and writing about mathematics should be central curriculum goals, and software like Mathematica greatly facilitates this. It may be that this is the single greatest positive educational benefit of using Mathematica.”