
Need a guide to math software.
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There's MathLab, Octave, Mathematica. Can anyone tell me how these relate, and which one is the best one to start a high schooler on? No specific project; just want to increase math skills. Is one of these better as an aid for learning high school level math?
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(what passes for credentials: D.Phil in theoretical physics, particularly numerical simulation, and undergraduate physics teacher for a few years) MatLab and Octave are very similar (Octave is an opensource version of MatLab); they're simple programming language that specialize in numerics, particularly matrix manipulation. Neither, last time I used them (I taught a course in computational physics using matlab and tried to run student code in octave) is particularly strong with symbolics. In other words, if you want a number for an answer, they're okay... ...but honestly if you want a number for an answer, I think as a highschooler you'd be better off learning Python and using the Numpy/Scipy libraries. That way you have a real generalpurpose language to use for lots of other things. Matlab and Octave are okay, but they're terrible programming languages (I did my thesis research in Python/numpy; it's very capable). For symbolic math, Mathematica is the commercial standard and a lot of people swear by it. For high school math where you're typically doing fairly straightforward symbolic work ("Integrate x^2 + 2x+ 1"), something like Mathematica is useful... ...but for whatever reason, I personally can't stand it and wound up using Maxima (http://maxima.sourceforge.net), which is an OSS symbolic math tool. It's not the easiest thing to learn, but if it can handle multipole expansion of tensors for me, it would do just fine for a highschooler, plus would cost them nothing so they could use it for life. Python has a symbolic library too (SymPy) but for just playing with concepts, I still recommend Maxima, particularly with one of the great frontends (I personally use Emacs with iMaxima (https://sites.google.com/site/imaximaimath/), but I'm not sure I'd saddle a highschooler with emacs unless they were really into computers). So my recommendations: Python/Numpy for numerical work, Maxima for symbolic work. Good solid tools, multiplatform so good on any computer and free to boot. Just what high school needs. 
A lot of math teachers in the twitterverse like brilliant.org 
An open source competitor to MATLAB / Octave that has gained a lot of traction this past year is Julia. Julia performs at speeds of C/C++ with a syntax that is similar to MATLAB. Julia also has a package management system similar to R but, for now at least, with far fewer packages than R. Learn more about Julia here: http://julialang.org. 
I would take a look at Sage (http://sagemath.org). It's a Pythonbased system that combines a lot of free and opensource math software (including SymPy and NumPy). The graphical interface runs in a web browser. You can try it without installing anything. Beware anything commercial: if your highschooler has access to such software, can you guarantee he or she will continue to do so? Imagine going to college and no longer being able to use the stuff you've gotten used to. Free software can't be taken away, so if you learn how to use such a tool, you can take it with you wherever you go. 
I use Mathematica exclusively. That said, I have seen a free package called Geogebra (http://www.geogebra.org) which looks extremely impressive; I just haven't taken the time to learn it. Were I in high school and had no access to Mathematica, I would give this a try. 
Perhaps I misunderstood the question, but it seems to me that the asker wants to boost her highschooler's MATH skills not teach him a math PROGRAMMING language. If that is the case (I am a Learning Skills Specialist in math and chemistry at our local Community College), I suggest trying some free websites like the DESMOS graphing calculator and WolframAlpha which will answer almost any math problem (though not always in the format I'd like when you get to Calc II and parametrics/polar coordinates). If I misinterpreted the question, please forgive my ignorance.... 
I previously reviewed an algebra app; have you tried it? http://kk.org/cooltools/archives/6504 
To the MATHEMATICA users here: is there an online course, book, or website that would help a teacher or student use Mathematic to help learn mathematics? Let's imagine it is a selfguided course. Let's say I want to brush up on my mathematic skills in the evening. Is there interactive software course for such a thing? 
A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true. All reviews on this site are written by readers who have actually used the tool and others like it. Items can be either old or new as long as they are wonderful. We post things we like and ignore the rest. Suggestions for tools much better than what is recommended here are always wanted.
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