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   HomeArticles / Teaching With Technology / Math Equations In Word And PowerPoint

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Math Equations in Word and PowerPoint
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

Mathematicians tell us that their language can describe and predict the phenomena of the universe, from the forces in the atom to the movement of the planets. But theirs is a strange language, often using symbols that don't appear on my keyboard. Many math teachers, from elementary school through university level, tell me they find it difficult to write math on the computer. So they revert to pencil and paper. This week's article looks at how anyone, whether math specialist or primary teacher or middle-school student, can use ubiquitous tools like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to create and work with the symbolic language of mathematics.

Because this is a plain-text web page you are reading, I can't show you directly the symbols that we can create with Word. But you may download a sample Word document containing all the examples I cite, and consult it as you read this article.

Picture This

  • Martin Hakim teaches engineering at Frenchville Community College. He is preparing a problem set for his students, in which they must adapt and modify some complex math equations that involve summation and integration. He cannot enter these symbols from his keyboard, no matter what special combinations of keys he presses.
  • Kelly Kounter is doing her fifth-grade math homework on the computer, and wants to show how she can add and subtract fractions with different denominators.
  • Cal Q. Luss is preparing a presentation for his 12th-grade class, to help them review for the big math test at the end of the semester, and needs to show differentials and integrals.

Though they are working in very different situations, all of these people face the same problem: how to create accurate and easy-to-read math equations that can be included in a standard document or slide show, saved, printed, and transmitted electronically to others. And the solution for each is the same: use the Equation Editor that comes with Microsoft Office. This little tool helps you to create the language of math that does not appear on the keyboard.

Installing Equation Editor

The Equation Editor does not arrive automatically on your computer with Microsoft Office. It's on the Office installation CD, but may not have been installed on your computer. First, find out if indeed it's installed on your system:

  1. Open Microsoft Word or PowerPoint.
  2. Create a new blank document with an empty page or slide.
  3. Choose Insert -- Object from the menubar.
  4. Look at the list of Object types in the window. Do you see Microsoft Equation? If so, you are all set, and you may forgo the installation process and proceed to the next section.
  5. If Microsoft Equation does not appear in the list, you must install it from the Office CD.
  6. Insert the Office CD into your computer.
  7. Find the Equation Editor file in the folder called Value Pack.
  8. Copy this file to the Office folder inside the Microsoft Office folder on your computer. In most cases, the Microsoft Office folder is in the Applications or Programs folder on your hard disk.

Now the next time you open Word or PowerPoint, it will see the Equation Editor and add it to the list of object types. To make sure, quit Word or PowerPoint, and go back through steps 1-4 above.

Making Math

Let's start with Kelly Kounter's problem, writing fractions. She is wrestling with one-third plus five-sixths. She wants to write it in good math format, as it appears in her textbooks. So she follows these steps:

  1. Place the cursor in the document where you want the math to appear.
  2. Choose Insert -- Object from the menubar.
  3. From the list of object types, select Microsoft Equation, and click OK.
  4. In a moment, you will see the Equation window appear, along with a small gray box in the document.
  5. In the Equation window, click the type of math you want to make. (In Kelly's case, it's the fraction template, bottom row, second from the left.)
  6. From the pop-down menu, choose the exact format you need. (Kelly chooses the full-size vertical fraction format.)
  7. Watch the template appear in the Equation window.
  8. Enter the numbers into the template. (Kelly enters 1 into the top and 3 into the bottom of the fraction template.)
  9. Enter the next item in the math sentence -- the + symbol -- from the keyboard.
  10. Create the second fraction (five-sixths) in the same way.
  11. Enter the = symbol from the keyboard. (We now have one-third plus five-sixths equals...)
  12. Enter the result, one and one sixth, by entering 1 from the keyboard, and then entering another vertical fraction.
  13. Close the Equation window, and watch the math appear in the document.
  14. Drag the handles of the math in the document to make it appear larger or smaller as necessary.

The math is actually an image, a little picture that contains all the special symbols.

More math

Now let's visit Prof. Hakim, who needs to show the integral from minus infinity to plus infinity of the Dirac impulse ∂(t). He starts the same way as Kelly, but chooses a different template. Picking up at Kelly's step 6, the engineer follows these steps:

  1. From the integral templates, choose the integral with superscript and subscript template.
  2. Enter plus-infinity and minus-infinity into the super- and sub-script respectively.
  3. Use the Greek letter tool in the Equation window to enter the lower-case delta symbol.
  4. Use the keyboard to enter the rest.
  5. Close the Equation window to see the results in the document.


Cal Q. Lus, the high-school teacher, in addition to these kinds of math sentences, also wants to include some sample plots on an x, y axis. He won't use the equation editor for this; instead he'll use the drawing tools. He follows these steps to make a simple plot of a curving function:

  1. Make sure the drawing toolbar is showing, by choosing View -- Toolbars -- Drawing from the menubar.
  2. Choose the Arrow tool from the Lines button.
  3. Click and drag the crosshair in the document to create the arrow for the x-axis.
  4. Choose the arrow tool again, and create the y-axis. Remember that the head of the arrow appears at the end, not at the beginning of the line.
  5. Choose the Curve tool from the Lines button.
  6. Draw the curve, clicking once to create the belly of the curve, and twice to end the curve.
  7. To label the plot, use the Text Box tool (letter A in the drawing toolbar). Choose the Text Box tool, click and drag in the document to create a box, then enter the label into the box from the keyboard.
  8. To remove the line around the text box, select the text box, then choose Format -- Text Box from the menubar, and set the Line Color to no line.

The size and position of all of the items in this plot can be adjusted selecting them and dragging their handles.

You can see the results of these three examples by downloading and opening the sample file.

PowerPoint and Excel as well

The equation editor and the drawing tools work the same way in PowerPoint and Excel as they do in Word. So you can include the language of math in a wide variety of documents. And with PowerPoint, you can make the elements of a plot, or the list of equations in a proof, appear one after the other in an animated fashion by using Animation function under the Slide Show menu. And these tools work equally well on the Windows versions of Office as they do on Macintosh.

On the Web

Once you create a Word or PowerPoint document containing math sentences or plots, you can post it to the Web by choosing Save as Web Page... from the File menu. The text of the document will be saved in HTML format, and the equations and plots as images. For instance, the sample file I created for this article is saved as mathsample.htm. Make sure you copy to the Web server the image folder (called, in this case, mathsample_files) that Word creates when it saves for Web. Sometimes Word has trouble getting the equations in exactly the right places, so you may want to open your HTML file with a Web page editor such as Dreamweaver, and adjust things accordingly.


The Microsoft Equation editor is a relatively simple and straightforward tool for creating math symbols and writing math sentences. More sophisticated tools exist that perform the same function, such as MathType, which you can learn about at http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathtype/. The tried and true users of math documents swear by this tool.

The language of math is full of work and wonder, and as we have seen, is no stranger to the world of computer documents.

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