The Siemens STEM Academy offers great resources for teachers, from lesson plans, to blog posts from teachers, to fantastic free webinars. Full disclosure: I have written for the STEM Academy blog, and been a part of the Academy summer program…but I am but a small fish in a cool ocean of resources!

This week, the Academy hosted a free webinar featuring a demonstration of the dynamic knowledge provided by Wolfram|Alpha. Having used Wolfram Demonstrations before in my classroom, I was looking forward to learning more about this search tool. Crystal Fantry provided an hour-long overview of this exciting resource, and ideas for classroom uses. It’s amazing how many “wow” moments I have these days with the new tech tools our students can have in their hands, but this one goes beyond that. Knowing that students have access to resources like this should cause us all to think about our roles as math teachers / facilitators….this is a game-changer!

So, just what is Wolfram|Alpha? The site is simple, just enter what you want to search for, and off you go…but this tool is so much more than that. The “about” from their website provides some insight:

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.

So, what the heck does that mean exactly? Let’s learn by diving in. And while you can use Wolfram|Alpha for far more than math, this is a math blog so let’s focus in on some math….

Try this: “y=2x +3”. Let’s start with something simple…what does Wolfram|Alpha give us?

Fun stuff. A nice graph, the domain, and alternate form.

How about this: “3x+5=2x-9”

Also nice, a plot of the the functions. And the equations’s solution..but what’s this…a “step-by-step solution”? If you are logged in (free accounts) you can step through the solution:

So, what happens now when you give that worksheet of equations to solve for homework?

There are a lot of other neat computations to explore, try some of these as starters:

- “y=(x+2)(x-3)”
- “inverse y=x^2+3x+1”
- “sin(x)+cos(x)=1”
- “Integrate x^2 dx from 0 to 5”

But Wolfram|Alpha goes beyond quick lists and computation. How about “Pascal’s Triangle mod 5”. Or “triangle sides 3, 6, 8”, or try the elusive 17-gon, and see the many facts to check out.

**A TOOL FOR RESEARCH AND GENERALIZATION**

I have only scratached the surface of the many features, and there are also lots of nooks, crannies and links for you to explore. I’m eager to use this tool with students as a means to research new ideas, and make some sense of their characteristics. For example, let’s think about domain and range, as I ranted about in a previous post. I like that Wolfram|Alpha expresses domains using set notation, and this is a great opportunity to have students research new functions. Most of what we do in Algebra 1 deals with linear functions, so we get a lot of “all real numbers” domains. Expose your students to non-linear functions, once they know how to make their x,y tables. Try these:

- y = 5 / x
- y = rt (x-2)
- y = 1 / (x^2 – 9 )
- y = 2^x
- y = x^2 – 4

And what to do with these new functions? Let’s place them into categories, share our findings, and communicate our ideas. Give each group 2 or 3 new functions to look at and share their findings on www.padlet.com. This site, formerly called WallWisher, allows everyone to contribute their ideasd and move them around the canvas. Here’s a sample of my function domain wall, click the link to contribute your own, play around the wall, and double-click in any empty space on the canvas to contribute. Or sign up for a free account and create your own wall.

Thanks to Kyle Schutt (@ktschutt) and the gang at Discovery Education for providing these great webinars. Be sure to check out the Siemen’s STEM Academy blog for more great resources, blog posts, and archived webinars.