Extraordinary Ideas

Teaching students to be problem solvers, not problem doers.

GUEST COLUMN | by Allison Taylor

CREDIT Wolfram Technology for STEM EducationIncorporating technology into the classroom is a no-brainer. At an exponential pace, technology is changing and becoming more complex—and students need to be able to grow and change with it. But more than that, it’s important to understand where technology fits, both in the classroom and in our lives. We want it to be a tool, a supplement, and not a crutch that limits our own abilities to innovate and move forward.

Here at Wolfram, we are leading the development of computational technology. From the advanced power of Mathematica to the scope of Wolfram|Alpha, we have often catered to the populations of higher education, scientific researchers, and corporate professionals. But Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and subsequent products that utilize our core technology’s extensive capabilities are versatile tools that also have a place in the K-12 classroom. (We even host a yearly Mathematica Summer Camp intended for junior and senior high school students with little to no programming experience!)

Just recently, Wolfram partnered with Wolfram|Alpha and EdTech Digest to sponsor the 2013 Virtual Conference for Education. We introduced some of Wolfram’s most innovative technologies, with detailed instruction for teachers on how incorporating these new tools can better promote STEM education.

By turning the classroom into an interactive experience, students are given the opportunity to make their own ideas come to life. Our free Computable Document Format (CDF) Player can be downloaded to gain access to a wide range of engaging demonstrations, lesson plans, and study guides. The Wolfram Demonstrations Project provides hundreds of professional knowledge apps in a range of topics, which can also be organized by Common Core State Standard to keep your curriculum on track.

We were also excited to have our keynote speaker, Conrad Wolfram, discuss his vision of Computer-Based Math™. Computers have the capability to completely change the standard of math and science education. The revolutionary curriculum encourages students to view computers not as something that does their work for them, but something that follows explicit instructions. This way of teaching transforms students’ confidence as they develop the skills to successfully conceptualize and dictate their ideas. Computers do the calculating, but they do not have the innovative and creative minds that humans do. Problem-solving and critical thinking are at the heart of math and science—and that often gets forgotten when the emphasis is on number crunching.

But as Wolfram delves deeper into what it means to make computation a regular part of education, we’ve only just started. In fact, people who use Wolfram|Alpha  may not even realize they are taking advantage of highly advanced computing at all. The powerful knowledge engine does more than give you straight information—it’s an investigative tool that prompts its users how to ask critical and complex questions. Students, as they use this resource, will develop fluency in the process of problem-solving—because the answer does not always lie in the computer’s output, but in the creative way in which students craft their queries.

Our Virtual Education Conference was also packed with ways to make teaching applicable in the real world. After all, the technology students use in the classroom should not stop at the edge of campus grounds. For example, with Wolfram|Alpha and Mathematica (as well as examples provided through the Demonstrations Project), teachers can incorporate current, real-world data that both teaches students analytics and sheds light on the world as it exists today. For students, course applications for their mobile devices allow their curiosity to be satisfied whenever and wherever a question strikes.

We even gave conference attendees a sneak peek at how some of our upcoming products—Wolfram Calculator, Wolfram Cloud, and Programming for Kids—will all revolutionize technology in the K-12 classroom. We are making tools to help students realize that computation means the freedom to explore and create. Math and science are not supposed to be tedious endeavors.

The need for STEM education is growing—as IMT Career Journal writes, “From 2000 to 2010, growth in STEM jobs (7.9 percent) was three times as fast as employment growth in non-STEM jobs (2.6 percent) in the United States.” Not to mention, the skills needed for STEM are needed elsewhere in society as well. We all know technology is not going to stop growing—the question is, how will we continue to adapt? How will we use it in productive and creative ways? Students are some of the most independent and imaginative thinkers out there. Let’s see what extraordinary ideas they come up with when we start them early with the right technology.

Allison Taylor works in Public and Community Relations at Wolfram Research, makers of WolframAlpha, a computational knowledge engine. Wolfram|Alpha introduces a fundamentally new way to get knowledge and answers—not by searching the web, but by doing dynamic computations based on a vast collection of built-in data, algorithms, and methods. Find out more at Wolfram Alpha.

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Are you an edtech leader, trendsetter, or the creator of a cool edtech tool? The 2014 EdTech Digest Awards extended entry period runs until October 18, 2013. There is still time to enter. For full details, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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