Product Review of Wolfram Alpha
Wolfram Alpha, the oddly named Web resource, isn’t quite a search engine nor a database, but a way to find info online based on computation and algorithms. Ask a search engine, “What’s the distance to Rigel?” and you’ll see a list of links to pages that might have the answer. Ask Wolfram Alpha, and you get “266.7 parsecs,” plus the distance in miles, light years, and kilometers.
Enter a question into a search box, and Wolfram Alpha will go off to find or calculate the answer. Questions must be factual and specific but don’t need to be overly scientific or technical. For example, “How many calories in 10 jelly beans?” is valid, but “How many calories in a candy bar?” or “How are jelly beans made?” are not. Plain English is accepted as well as math problems; try “gas prices 1980” and “2 * 9 – 8 + 7.” Detailed reports provide the answer as well as links to related topics. A video tutorial shows users what to do, including how to use plain English or enter math problems. Think “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how many” instead of “why.”
Wolfram Alpha is a reference site –- it provides the answers, but what happens next is up to the questioner. There are plenty of creative ways to use the data, but it probably works best with a science- or math-based curriculum. The Resources page provides access to an Educators section with lesson plans and ideas for all curricular areas. Wolfram Alpha has also created several mobile apps that could be used depending on class resources.
Wolfram Alpha’s databases cover hundreds of topics; kids can ask about aluminum production, mold spores, or the weather on the day they were born. The Examples page provides a list of data categories; however, some topics are still under development, such as humor, disasters, and ecology. If kids plan to use the site as part of a learning activity, take time to ensure the information is available. When you need an exact answer, Wolfram Alpha is efficient, accurate, and reliable –- as long as the answer can be found in one of its databases and the question is asked correctly.
There are questions the site can’t answer, and its attempts to narrow down the query can further complicate it. Answers are a mix of text and graphics like data tables, graphs, maps, word clouds, etc. Most impressive are its answers to math problems where it will show the answer and visual representations like manipulatives, number lines, or even elliptic paraboloids. This approach supports kids with different learning preferences.
Overall User Consensus About the App
Kids can freely explore their choice of topics. Answers rely on info housed in Wolfram Alpha’s databases. Not all factual questions can be answered, which could turn kids away.
Curriculum and Instruction
Wolfram Alpha shares everything it knows using text, diagrams, and pictures. Kids can read and remember the data but will need more support to apply it elsewhere. Answers and reports can be shared on social networking sites.
A video tutorial, community forum, and blogs are available. Different presentations of data may engage kids who are not strong readers.