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Fred Szabo's classroom of the future

Math professor champions use of Mathematica software in teaching and learning
November 27, 2012
By Tom Peacock

Professor Fred Szabo from Concordia’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics is a master of nifty word combinations designed to help you remember and absorb what he’s talking about. He is a teacher, after all.

For example, here he is explaining his enthusiasm for educational technology: “Technology provides the tools for better teaching and learning, because it’s Powerful, Portable, and Personal.” It’s not hard to imagine him grabbing a piece of chalk and scrawling those three words on a blackboard, then underlining them for emphasis.

Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University
Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University

Except, Szabo’s pretty much done with blackboards. Instead, he prefers to use his favourite software platform, Mathematica. As far as he’s concerned, the computational software from Champaign, Illinois’ Wolfram Research sets the standard for teaching platforms. “It has become the lingua franca for studying, learning, and teaching, not only of mathematics, but of almost every other discipline,” he says.

Mathematica is a versatile software platform that can be used for everything from solving simple calculations to plotting complex functions and data, to creating slideshow presentations of completed work. The software is so good, Szabo says, because it applies underlying computer languages in extraordinary ways that make perfect sense to him.

“It’s a wonderful teaching tool because if you think of a way to solve a problem, chances are that’s how you would solve it in Mathematica,” he says. “There’s a very close connection."

Szabo’s work bringing Mathematica into his labs and classrooms and spreading his knowledge about its educational applications recently earned him a coveted Innovator Award from Wolfram Research, one of six awarded this year.

“Fred has showcased Mathematica in broad discussions about the greater use of technology in Canadian schools and universities, citing his own mathematics courses where close to 90 per cent of the students find Mathematica engaging and fun to use,” says his award citation on the company website.

Szabo says he first became interested in Mathematica years ago when he and his colleagues thought it would be the best tool for a student in Concordia’s Science College to use in a project on fractals. Even though the student produced a very good project, student licenses for Mathematica were prohibitively expensive.

“Ever since then I had it at the back of my mind that I’d like to explore the use of Mathematica,” Szabo says. Eventually, Wolfram changed its pricing policies, and before long, Szabo had secured a free license to use the software in his department’s labs.

He spent the next five years working with the company and Concordia’s administration to secure an affordable site license for the university. Now, thanks to that license, all members of the university can install the software on their personal computers for free.

To illustrate its usefulness in different domains, Szabo gives the example of a presentation by one of his students in his course, The Fascinating World of Numbers, which is geared toward students from outside the math department. The student, a singer, put together a presentation on sound waves that was, he recalls, “the most beautiful, elegant project with Mathematica that I’ve ever seen. You would never, ever have expected that from a student who gave up on math in high school… So, I’m able to bring people back into the fold with this tool and all the things they can do with it.”

Concordia’s new eLearning Fellow, Professor Saul Carliner from the Department of Education, says Szabo’s enthusiastic adoption of Mathematica in his teaching is great because it will encourage other faculty members to adopt new teaching and learning technologies, even if they’re not in the same faculty.

“He’s a very interdisciplinary person,” Carliner says. “Because he doesn’t just see the limits of this software application in one particular course; he sees the broad application of it.”

Szabo will host a series of hands-on weekly seminars for faculty and students on Mathematica and other complementary Wolfram technologies every Wednesday, beginning January 16.

The seminars are part of Szabo’s larger goal to expand what he calls “laptop learning” at Concordia. “I guess I’m a techie,” he admits, smiling. “My courses are on the iPad, they’re on the phone.  Everything is portable now. My lectures are on here,” he says pointing at his tablet. “You can take them home and watch them, and I’m doing it all with Mathematica.”

As Szabo approaches the mid-point of his 48th year working at Concordia, he hints at even more ambitious future plans. “For my 50th year of teaching, I want to do something big, and that has to do with technology,” he says. “There are lots of people out there who can teach with chalk and a blackboard. Very few can do it my way. But if I show people how to do it my way, maybe the word will spread and others will take up the challenge.”

What: Wolfram Technology Seminars
When: Wednesdays, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., starting January 16, 2013
Where: Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Room LB-921.04, J.W. McConnell Library Building (1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.), Sir George Williams Campus

Related links:

•    Department of Mathematics and Statistics
•    Wolfram Mathematica


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