ChatGPT for Math?

By Sophia Lichterfeld

If you take out your phone and snap a picture of a math problem, within milliseconds, you could get the answer and a full, step-by-step explanation of how to solve it. While ChatGPT, which can write out full essays for history or English topics, has caused many conversations among students and faculty at Winsor, technologies that can solve math problems, including Symbolab, Wolfram Alpha, and Photomath, have already existed for several years but have rarely been addressed on a wider scale. Although the math department has had to adapt its teaching and assessing methods due to the growing prevalence of these apps, they have found opportunities to apply them in ways that are advantageous to student learning. As long as students use these technologies with the intent of ameliorating their own skills and understanding, similar apps could be incorporated into the wider curriculum in ways that support both students and teachers.

Head of the Math Department Ms. Cohen postulated that, compared to ChatGPT, fewer people realize that technologies such as Photomath exist, since they are only applicable to math problems and individuals need to have already written an equation. Although many of these apps have existed for much longer, Ms. Cohen said the math department and students became much more acutely aware of them during the pandemic. “We saw that students did not retain as much during hybrid learning, and we think students were using those types of apps and software to help them with their work,” she observed. She noted that one change such technologies have led to for the math department is that they do not feel as comfortable giving take-home problems. “I used to love giving problem sets because you could ask the really interesting questions and see the students’ creativity,” Ms. Cohen recalled. Instead, now more time is spent in class on assessments to see what students have truly understood.

However, these technologies are certainly not inherently bad; Ms. Cohen acknowledged that they can sometimes be helpful in understanding the process when learning a new technique. She suggested that students could utilize these apps to practice skills quickly and check their answers immediately, even for more challenging problems. Diya Dronavadhyala ’24 agreed, describing, “To prepare for tests and exams, I will oftentimes use Desmos or other online calculators to check my work if the answers are not readily available. This process makes my studying much more efficient as I can spend more time learning concepts and practicing problems than rifling through handouts or searching for answer keys, but I still get the benefits of identifying and assessing my errors.”

Finally, Ms. Cohen compared the current dilemma around these software to the debate around the graphing calculator, which was a transformative new tool in the mid-1990s. “There were all these philosophical discussions about how to change the curriculum and whether students would still be able to graph,” she remembered. Ultimately, she realized that, even with a graphing calculator, students needed to learn how to graph frequently-occurring functions fluently, yet the time that had previously been spent focusing on teaching and memorizing the details of various graphs could instead be spent on practicing how to analyze the graphs and apply the information gained from them to solve more complex problems. 

Winsor’s Systems Integration Specialist Mr. Cox believed that similar developments may occur for the humanities in the coming years due to technologies like ChatGPT. He mentioned that “it is a language model; all it is doing is predicting the next word and iterating on that, and it can summarize what it has been fed. It is only going to get better, and it could make new connections, but it will never have creativity…maybe we will need to rethink our prompts, but the tool is not going away.” As flexible and resourceful beings, while we become more adept at using these technologies, we will certainly find new applications for them to help us learn in various ways; we must, however, keep in mind that the goal of studying is not to ace the next assignment but to truly understand a concept and develop lasting skills.

Look out for future installments in The Banner’s new ChatGPT and AI series that will consider the world language department’s response to translation algorithms such as Google Translate and the art department’s thoughts around AI art such as DALL-E!