There are lots of great online educational resources out there, and the purpose of this blog post is to tell you about one of the very best, and certainly the one that I find most useful – Wolfram Alpha.
Imagine asking your computer how many calories 10 peanut M&Ms contained or how many people a 9 kilogram turkey would feed; imagine typing an entire mathematical problem into a search bar and getting a direct answer, instead of a list of web pages pointing you in what seems like the right direction. This is exactly what Wolfram Alpha is, a new ‘answer engine’ developed by Wolfram Research, and what it can do for you.
Also known as a computational knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha, launched in May, 2009, may not offer the answers to all your questions just yet, but its goal – to change the way we interact with computers, answer complex questions, perhaps even “model and explain the physics underlying the universe”– is a very exciting vision of what it may be able to achieve.
Based on Founder, Stephen Wolfram’s computational platform, Mathematica, its capabilities extend to numerical computation, symbolic, computer algebra, visualisation and statistics. The company’s long-term goal is “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone… we aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything.” Stephen Wolfram seeks to provide one source for every single factual query in existence – a lofty aim, indeed.
How does Wolfram Alpha work?
It may be written in 15 million lines of complex code, but Wolfram Alpha is no more difficult to use than a search engine. Just use natural language to submit your query and your computer will provide an answer by turning to a base of curated, structured data obtained from other websites. Thus far, it is most efficient at answering questions based on computational facts, rather than the more complex ones posed in fields such as cultural studies, history or social sciences.
Wolfram Alpha Topics and Examples of Questions and Answers
Some of the many topics you can use Wolfram Alpha to enquire about include:
Mathematics: Users can ask Wolfram Alpha to do basic arithmetic, solve an algebra equation, compute a formula for a sequence, compute a truth table and more.
People and History: Find information about the date range assigned to a historical period, compare two different historical periods, obtain information about different occupations, and compare several historical figures simply by separating their names with a comma.
Health and Medicine: Find out how many calories a day you would need to consume to lose a specific amount of weight, compute the number of calories consumed through various forms of exercise, or compute your risk of heart disease.
Life Science: Compare different types of dinosaurs, visualise a metabolic pathway, or compare different species of animals.
Art and Design: Compare colours, apply different filters of an image or obtain information about a specific artwork.
Computational Sciences: Analyse a fractal, obtain information about a function or analyse an algebraic code; the possibilities are infinite!
Some of the many additional topics covered include Weather and Meteorology, Transportation, Shopping, Places and Geography and Earth Sciences.
Wolfram Alpha as an educational tool
In addition to being used to satisfy our individual curiosities, Wolfram Alpha can also be employed in the classroom. Teachers, tutors and students can use the computational knowledge engine to obtain information on a particular concept (animals, planets, maps, mathematical problems), create visual aids such as images and graphs, show the steps involved in solving a mathematical problem, plan a lesson, assign homework or provide useful information for essays and group projects. The engine has many additional tools for educators, including the Wolfram Education Portal, comprising a dynamic textbook, lesson plans, interactive demonstrations, apps and much more, created by Wolfram’s talented and highly experienced experts in the field of education.
The engine can also be used to find information on everything from top libraries to private schools, standardised tests and international education – e.g. compare how many children are literate in your country and in one across the globe, or find out how much different governments spend on education.
The Wolfram Education Portal
The Wolfram Education Portal offers a host of useful sources for teachers and tutors, including textbooks, lesson plans, widgets, demonstrations and even the fantastically fun Wolfram Problem Generation, which challenges students and teachers alike with various questions, based on the level of difficulty they have mastered previously. Topics are thus far limited to the field of mathematics, covering Algebra, Precalculus, and Physics I: Mechanics. The Wolfram team promise that new categories will soon be added. The site likewise offers a plethora of Course Assistant Apps, for use with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.
Wolfram Alpha as a tool for programmers
Wolfram isn’t only aimed at helping educators and students, of course; it is also an important tool for programmers, especially those specialising in algorithmically oriented programming, since it contains the World’s largest unified web of built-in algorithms across all topics. Computer specialists can turn to Wolfram Alpha for maximum productivity programming, computing using real world date, ultra-high-level scripting, poetic and recreational programming, analytics, programming the Internet of Things and much more.
Wolfram Alpha Pro
February, 2010, saw the launch of Wolfram Alpha Pro, offering users the chance to upload an array of data for automatic analysis. The service can be accessed for a monthly subscription fee. Additional attractive features include customisation, data downloads, interactivity, extra time for long calculations, etc.
Wolfram Alpha ‘Partners’
Wolfram Alpha is currently used to power certain searches on DuckDuckGo and Microsoft Bing and is also relied upon by Siri (Apple), S Voice (Samsung) and other speech recognition and voice control software. For an example of how Wolfram Alpha can be used with Siri, type in the name of a gadget you are shopping for and receive Best Buy shopping results.
The Wolfram Alpha Blog
For the latest news about Wolfram Alpha and how it can be used in classes or home schooling, check out their blog, and look up the category, Education. Discover interesting internships being offered by the team, sign up for Mathematica camps, read tutorials on specific topics (such as basic arithmetic) and discover new ways you can obtain the most from this complex answering engine.
I hope that you have found this article useful, and drawn you in to take a look and use the website. If there are any features that you particularly like, why not share them with us and our readers in the comments box below.