Good things in small packages

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Ian Wilson looks at two straightforward computer programs for algebra and graphs

MATHPLUS FOR WINDOWS AND MACINTOSH Pounds 199 (single user). Pounds 995 unlimited site licence for secondary schools, Robinson Marshall (Europe) plc, Nadella Building, Progress Close, Leofric, Business Park, Coventry, CV3 2TF, Age range 14-plus

Mac users may well know of Theorist, a computer-algebra package which has been available for some years. At last the developers have produced a version for PCs, improving what was already a good, user-friendly package.

MathPlus combines algebraic and graphical manipulation techniques and is powerful enough to cope with anything needed at GCSE and A-level (and indeed with higher level maths; Laplace transforms, Bessell functions and Chebyshev Polynomials are all here). Installing the program is simple: on opening, a "notebook" appears, a sort of word processor document in which all work is carried out. Above it is a "palette" of symbols and expressions. Expressions or equations can be created in the notebook by clicking on the icons; expressions by using the keyboard.

As the helpful learning guide points out, it is noticeably faster for experienced users to enter via the keyboard, but for many students the palette will prove easier.

Once entered, the expression can be manipulated by using the drop-down menus or the palette. For example, having entered an equation, it is easy to change the subject by clicking on the variable and clicking on "isolate". Expressions can be simplified with the command "clarify". Each time one of these operations is carried out, the notebook shows the original expression and the changed expression beneath it with a comment in italics saying what has been done.

Graphing with MathPlus is similar to using other packages or graphical calculators. You can zoom in or out, and you can move along a graph with a hand icon. A "super knife" mode allows you to keep slicing the graph until the resolution becomes too small to be useful.

The three-dimensional graphing facilities are impressive, with the option of colour to enhance three-dimensional graphs of complex functions. Three-dimensional graphs can also be rotated easily by dragging a "hand" icon across them. It is even possible to animate a graph by creating a series of related graphs. Tables can be generated from a graph or from a function and data can be imported from a spreadsheet in another program to create a table.

Operations in calculus are also straightforward. Differentiation, integration by parts, substitution, and transformation are all easily done. Matrix algebra, such as finding inverses and eigenvalues, is also covered.

It takes a reasonable time to understand the possibilities of MathPlus, but its great advantage is that you can get started without having to learn a new language, and its method of operation is very straightforward. It should prove useful to senior pupils in secondary schools and colleges.

Ian Wilson is head of Woodcote High School, Croydon

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