Mathematica Software Revolutionizes Science, Engineering Education

AUC has recently become the first Mathematica campus in the world, with the School of Sciences and Engineering (SSE) gaining license to use the world-renowned software and its companion products for all SSE students, faculty and staff for the 2013 – 2014 academic year. With its vast computational tools, interactive simulations, automated solutions and embedded image-recognition algorithms, the software promises to revolutionize the teaching and learning of science and engineering. “The integration of modern, state-of-the-art technology in SSE education is an integral element of the school’s five-year strategic plan,” said Tarek Shawki, SSE dean. “The integration of powerful technical computing tools will encourage faculty members to rethink pedagogy, course curricula and assessment, thus leading to modernizing our entire range of course offerings. By giving students full access to such technologies, we are positively impacting their learning in significant ways.” Developed by Wolfram Company, Mathematica enables, among other things, the automatic symbolic/numerical calculation of complex mathematical procedures that traditionally took up a lot of time from both teachers and students. “Since engineering is built on mathematical foundations, students had to typically solve long algebraic and differential equations in order to understand the course topics,” explained Shawki. “They would spend hours calculating what would happen if a given variable changes. Time would be consumed solving these labor-intensive equations, which could take up to 75 percent of class sessions. Even then, visualizing the results was difficult. By integrating a powerful interactive technology such as Mathematica, such equations are solved in a matter of seconds, and students could now focus on real-life applications such as how to build a bridge, how electric circuits operate, how car gearboxes are designed and how robots work. The interactive features, visual elements and applications also allow them to see things firsthand and test different variables and explore 3D simulations, enhancing their creative ability to think and design, as well as build their own models, which is what engineering students should actually do.” This is in line with modern trends in technology, science and education. In recent years, the desire to remain at the forefront of technological and scientific innovation has led different countries to invest in the enhancement and development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching. Education reformers have sought to change the way STEM fields are taught and how students of all ages learn science and mathematics. Research has shown that when STEM fields are taught in an engaging and interactive manner, with real-world problem solving and the injection of technology into the curriculum, rather than a linear and rigid method of learning, students not only find the content fun, but gain a better understanding of the concepts at hand. “The way we teach science and engineering should not be the same as we did 50 years ago,” said Shawki. “We have to move from a static and obsolete style of teaching to a more dynamic and hands-on style. When engineering graduates go on to work in multinational corporations, they won’t be solving algebraic and differential equations or long algorithms by hand, so there is no point spending most of the class time on such manual computations. Software such as Mathematica could solve hundreds of these equations in a matter of seconds, with an incredible range of visualizations, documentation, toolboxes, presentation formats and interactive simulations available. It is then up to students to use their judgment to interpret the information, manipulate the variables in order to change the outcome, and use built-in commands or create their own programs –– ultimately producing something meaningful. That way, they are not just passive recipients of information; they are active learners, constantly exploring and discovering new things.” For all this to be effective, instructors also need to be trained in these new pedagogical methods. “Faculty members will have to rethink the way they teach,” affirmed Shawki, adding that there will be extensive, on-site training by Wolfram for 25 “champion” faculty members, who will then serve as master trainers for the rest of the faculty. When the training is completed, faculty members will receive a globally recognized certification. In addition, there will be on-site peer mentoring by Wolfram experts for select SSE faculty in order to transform at least 10 courses during this academic year. This pilot phase will be monitored and assessed, with a formal evaluation complete by Summer 2014. “AUC is the first higher education campus worldwide to integrate this software from the ground up,” said Shawki, adding that Mathematica serves as a knowledge repository in all subjects, from arts and sports to finance and English, not just science and engineering. “This would reinvigorate the learning process and encourage creativity, critical thinking and innovation. We need to make the teaching and learning of science, mathematics and engineering more practical, more hands-on and more fun.”