New Scientist magazine had a short piece recently about a study of physics students' use of Wolfram Mathematica software, which is a symbolic math program that does algebra and calculus and many other things. The researchers found that, while the software is a powerful supplement, it "narrows the breadth of their thinking. Their reasoning is drawn into local attractors where they look to calculation schemes to resolve questions instead of, for example, mapping the mathematics to the physical system at hand." They don't recommend banishing the software; rather they say instructors should be aware of this effect and watch for it.

The New Scientist piece is here: Physics tool makes students miss the point (subscription required for full text). Oddly, the print magazine, where I read it, has a much softer title: "When it's time to sit back and think again."

The research paper, by Thomas Bing and Edward Redish is called "Symbolic Manipulators Affect Mathematical Mindsets" and is available at Arxiv.org: abstract, full paper (pdf).

New Scientist's harsh title led Theodore Gray, one of Mathematica's co-founders, to write a lengthy rant at the Wolfram company blog: Flipping Out over Technology in Education, which I confess I have not read in full. I think he's right insofar as the title is bad. The rest of the New Scientist article seems fair, though, and it's only 466 words so you can't expect much nuance.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course (as the article states). It's easy to get trapped into certain kinds of activity when it'd be better to step back and rethink your approach to a problem. I saw this when I taught programming and watched students flail away at the keyboard, and I've done it myself way too many times.

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