From Slide Rules to Mathematica

It’s hard to believe that we use to carry out complicated computations on something that required no batteries to operate, had no screen, and no buttons; it was called a slide rule.  I have no idea how it even worked, just take a look at the photo below…


These things were complicated, yet they powered the analysis of complex mathematical systems and provided a quick way to perform calculations.  According to the website, The Museum of HP Calculators, the slide rule reigned supreme for about 300 years.  You can even take a look at the instructions for its operation here, it’s not very intuitive at first glance.

We’re almost 400 years post slide rule invention, credited to William Oughtred in 1622, and technology has brought us a long way.  At Pomfret School we provide all students with a Wolfram account and the science department requires all students to download, install, and use Mathematica to perform a whole host of operations.  Students are first introduced to the program in our freshmen physics class where we work to provide them with all of the skills and know how to use Mathematica (MMA) confidently.


We begin the year with a simple lab where students use Mathematica to calculate percent error, a value that we end up using frequently


Student write-up submitted for grading.

throughout the year to inform students of their own lab/data collection skills.  The lab centers on the Vitruvian Man and the students
use the ideal proportions and their own measurements to calculate percent error.  They then write-up the lab in Mathematica and submit it for grading.  This is definitely not second nature for most of our students and many struggle with the programming nature of the input and formatting nuances of the program.

With some practice and after many failed outputs, about 90% of the students are ready to move on, and to begin tackling harder material on their path to unlock the power of such a robust program.  We move into units, measurements, and conversions next and present the students with a lab where they make their own unit and learn how to convert measurements using Mathematica.


All lab handouts are made using Mathematica so students are interacting with the software on many different levels.

At this point we are just two weeks into class, and we begin to show students


Notes can be easily formatted and images inserted in MMA.

how Mathematica can be used to take notes as well.  It’s interesting to note that although we have spent time teaching the students how to use Mathematica we have also been able to move through typical freshmen year content at a reasonable pace.  This lab, unlike the last, incorporates the use of more complex mathematical skills and reasoning.  Mathematica allows students to see the format of the conversions, much like on paper, but are less intimidated by the process of solving the equation.  As the students begin to see the merit in


Student generated conversion practice.

learning the Mathematica input language we begin to see them embracing the fact that they don’t have to worry about inputing their work on paper into their calculator.  What was once a two step process on paper and with a calculator has now become one step in Mathematica.


We’re almost three weeks into the school year now and I’m 100% behind the use Mathematica in the classroom.  It has allowed students to solve mathematical problems, take notes in class, and learn how to do some basic programming.  It makes me wonder what it would be like trying to teach these students how to use a slide rule…

I have to also give a huge amount of credit to my fellow teacher, Josh Lake, as much of this content was generated initially by him.



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