Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me something surprising. After installing Wolfram Alpha for Android and telling me about it, he called it “an app most people don’t know about“. “Who doesn’t know about Wolfram Alpha?” I inquired, surprised. “Not everyone is as technically aware as you are” was his answer.
To this moment, I’m not sure he was right. Is Wolfram Alpha really a niche website? With its Pro version launching last year and abilities which range from Facebook research to English learning, Wolfram Alpha is one of the best ways to get your questions answered quickly.
Still not sure what Wolfram Alpha is? Don’t worry, you’re going to find out in a second, and discover that aside from its regular, everyday uses and its downright weird uses (did you know it can tell you if you’re drunk?), Wolfram Alpha is also a wonderful educational tool that can help parents and educators alike teach kids something new every day. Below you’ll find some great tips and methods for using Wolfram Alpha as a fun teaching tool.
So What Is Wolfram Alpha?
Just in case you’re new to the engine, Wolfram Alpha is a place where you can research and calculate almost anything. It’s similar to Google in that it has an answer to almost anything, but is different in the kind of answer it returns.
Called a “computational knowledge engine”, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t merely point you to websites like Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers; rather, it provides a detailed answer all of its own, with a bunch of interesting related trivia as part of the bargain.
The answer can be as specific as you want it to be. So, for example, when looking into the amount of fat in a burger and pickle, Wolfram Alpha lets you choose what your burger is made of, what kind of pickle you’re interested in, and even lets you set the right toppings so the calculation is as accurate as possible.
As mentioned above, A Pro version of Wolfram Alpha also exists, and for $4.99/month ($2.99 for students), you can get access to even more advanced search capabilities, interactive search results, data export options, and more.
All the methods below work with the free version, however, and now that you know what Wolfram Alpha can do, you’re probably even more eager to use it for education. And rightly so!
Learn About Animals & The Animal Kingdom
Everyone knows how to type in “giraffe” into Google and find some images and a relevant Wikipedia page. But when investigating an animal, several animals, or any animal taxa, kids don’t always care for opening up 10 different websites to find all the information they need. Same goes for adults, really. Wolfram Alpha offers some pretty neat tricks that turns learning about animals into a much better experience.
For example, do you know how far a Kangaroo can jump? How fast can a rhinoceros run? To find these out, you usually have to dig in long pages of text for the right number. Alternatively, you can type the question into Wolfram Alpha.
Not only can you find out immediately how fast a rhino can run, you also get a better idea of what this speed means. In this case, an average rhino can run 1.4 times faster than the world’s fastest human. Pretty impressive.
Another way to learn about animals is to compare several species and find out the differences. By typing something like “panda, red panda” into Wolfram alpha you can discover that aside from the name, these are pretty different animals.
These are just some suggestions. Wolfram Alpha understands taxonomy terms, breed names, and can even help you discover funny things like an animal’s shaking frequency.
Learn How To Solve Math Problems
As we all know, Google has a built in calculator, and can even spit out graph results for certain functions. But can it show you how to solve a problem? As a kid (and adult) learning math, I always hated being given the final result when I asked for help in math. The hard part in math is always the solving, and in most school tests, that’s where I lost valuable points.
Wolfram Alpha has a neat little trick called “solve”. Simply type in the word solve in front of any equation, and Wolfram Alpha will show you how to solve it. Don’t worry, kids can’t use this method to solve their entire homework assignment, as it’s limited to three step-by-step solutions per day (unlimited with a Pro account).
Even without the step-by-step solution, though, any problem, from simple equations to derivatives to integrals, can be solved with Wolfram Alpha, including a graph that depicts the function you’re working with.
There are even some math lesson plans available for educators who want to use Wolfram Alpha in class.
Learn Geography & Astronomy
We all know this type of assignment. Look up some information on England, and fill in a worksheet with the facts you found. This is a pretty tedious task, and one which Wolfram Alpha can make much easier. True, most of the information will be available on Wikipedia as well, but Wolfram Alpha’s lean interface makes it much more accessible.
Other than the usual map, you’ll also find all sorts of useful information, all listed in a table. This is available for any country, state, city or place in the world (the amount of information may vary, of course). But why stay stuck on Earth? Wolfram Alpha can be used to explore space as well, including stars, planets, and even space missions.
It can also be used to glean out specific information such as a country’s population, a star’s mass, or get a list of the smallest countries in the world.
Learn A Fun Fact Every Day
Kids (and adults) tend to get bored with the same old material every day. A cool and much more exciting assignment would be to discover a new fact on Wolfram Alpha and write something about it. There are several ways to do this, all very easy.
The first way would be to use Wolfram Alpha’s “Random” button. This pops up a random search query, in most cases one you never would have thought of yourself. Of course, these can be related to any subject, and in any level, so you may have to click it several times until you find something you’re really interested in learning about.
For example, by doing this right now, I found a dwarf planet called Ceres which I’ve never heard of before, and discovered that its surface area is smaller than that of India.
Another way to get kids to use this method is to give them something to look up on Wolfram Alpha as homework, and describe what they’ve learned. Since they don’t have to search all over the web for this, they’re less likely to get distracted while doing so.
But let’s face it, just like adults, kids like social networks, and what better way is there to integrate them with the learning experience? @WolframFunFacts on Twitter tweets out interesting random facts every day, and while following it is definitely learning, it sure doesn’t feel that way.
There’s Lots More
The methods above are just the tip of the iceberg. You can use Wolfram Alpha to teach (and learn) about DNA by searching for a DNA sequence, you can use it to teach about colors and light, chemical elements, and even vocabulary. By typing in “word” before any word, kids can get a definition of that word including all its different meanings, learn to pronounce it correctly, and even get some background information such as when this word came into use, how frequently it’s used, its common synonyms, and more.
All you have to do is point your browser at Wolframalpha.com and start exploring for yourself.
We’re always on the lookout for more interesting and original way to use Wolfram Alpha, so please add some in the comments below!
Image Credit: Open book image via Shutterstock