Tag Archives: graphing calculator

Wolfram|Alpha and the shrinking future of the graphing calculator

Mathematica
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By now, you’ve probably heard about Wolfram|Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that was recently rolled out by the makers of Mathematica. If you haven’t, here’s a good place to start. There is considerable debate among ed-tech people as to exactly what kind of impact Wolfram|Alpha, abbreviated W|A, is going to have in education. For me, W|A is still a little raw and gives back  too many “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” responses when given mathematically legitimate (at least they seem so to me) queries. But the potential is there for W|A to be a game-changing technological advance, doing for quantitative information what Google did for text and web-based information back in the 90’s. (W|A is already its own verb.)

One thing that seems clear is that, with technology available that is free and powerful and hardware-agnostic, technology that previously has ruled the ed-tech roost can’t survive for much longer. I’m thinking particularly of the graphing calculator. These have been a fixture in math education, especially at the pre-college level, for the better part of 20 years. But now here is W|A, which can graph functions, perform symbolic algebra and calculus computations, even solve differential equations and do number theory and statistics and all manner of interesting stuff besides, including but very much not limited to mathematics. In short, it does everything a graphing calculator does. But, importantly: W|A is free, runs on any web-enabled device (including, as I can attest to by experience, an iPod touch), is fast, is portable (see the links I just shared?), and — perhaps most importantly of all —  has an army of developers who are constantly adding new features into the system.

You could spend $150 to get the latest and greatest from Texas Instruments, a handheld device that does what a graphing calculator does — but no more. (Here’s my first-hand take on the NSpire and details on what I see as its demerits.) Or, you could spend a little more than twice that much and get a netbook computer that gives you access to W|A as well as a suite of office tools and more. Computing hardware has become so small and cheap, and online quantitative tools so functional and powerful, that it’s very hard to see how graphing calculators can survive the next 5 years.

If graphing calculators do survive, it will be for one main reason: The AP exams. I was talking with a local high school AP Calculus teacher this week who impressed on me that  she cannot afford to drop graphing calculators and move on to using netbooks or some other more sensible technology because, quite simply, there are questions on the AP Calculus exams that require the use of graphing calculators. Students have to have total fluency with graphing calculators — and not some other, calculator-like technology — in order to do as well as they possibly can on the exam, which is part of this teacher’s professional responsibility. The AP already succeeded in killing the TI-92 calculator — a really good technology for its time, when laptops still weighed 15 pounds and costs thousands of dollars — for no better reason than because it had a QWERTY keyboard. Today, the AP might succeed in keeping W|A and other similiarly useful, perhaps even transformative, technologies out of the hands of students pretty much for the same reasons, which is a real shame and quite backwards-looking.

But then again, I don’t know what the AP folks have in mind. Perhaps there are plans afoot to migrate the AP exams away from dependency on graphing calculators. It certainly wouldn’t take much for the AP folks to write their own lightweight graphing tool that does nothing more than plot functions, find intersection points, shade in areas, and do numerical integration (rarely are graphing calculators used on the AP free-response portion for more than these four things). Make it extremely basic, put it on the web, free for all to use, and provide it on specialized computers for students taking the exam. That way, students can learn how to use technology rather than learn how to use a graphing calculator, and both teachers and students can be freer to choose the extent and type of technology they want to use in their classes. And such a thing would probably have a longer shelf life than any TI calculator for sale or in production.

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Filed under Calculators, Educational technology, Math, Technology

Calculator blasts from the past

One of the real treats of the ICTCM was the Saturday 8:00 AM session titled “Three Decades of Handheld Devices: How Mathematics Teaching Changed Along with Them” given by John Kenelly. Prof. Kenelly has a long history of involvement in the development of calculator technology, and he gave a fascinating talk full of good thoughts on the direction of handheld technologies today, war stories from the past, and good jokes. (Example of the latter: “Getting a spreadsheet to work on a calculator is like getting a dog to walk on its hind legs — it can be done, but it ain’t pretty!”)

I will try to say more about Prof. Kenelly’s ideas about the future of handheld technologies in a later post, but for now I wanted to share one of the really cool parts of his talk — the calculators themselves, some of which are now antiques. He had a bag full of these old-school devices (some of which are less than 10 years old but still old-school) which he generously let us paw over.

Here is a Hewlett-Packard HP 35, the world’s first handheld scientific calculator, from 1972. Check out that red LED display and, in contrast with the NSpire, the sheer paucity of keys on the keyboard:

hp-35.jpg

Here’s a rare example of a Casio fx7000, from 1985 — the world’s first handheld graphing calculator.

hp-fx7000.jpg

I was downright startled to learn that sitting right across the aisle from me at this talk was Hideshi Fukaya, the lead engineering on the development team for the Casio fx7000 and the person rightfully considered to be the inventor of the graphing calculator.

Moving ahead up the timeline, here is a Casio Cassiopeia. More of a palmtop computer than a calculator, and it ran Windows CE. Anybody remember good old WinCE and why that abbreviation was particularly apt?

cassiopeia.jpg

I guess I am just a sucker for old-fashioned calculators.

Aside: I’d love to do a spreadsheet in which one column has the year in which a calculator was made and another column has the number of buttons on the calculator, and run a regression analysis on it.

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Filed under Calculators, Educational technology, Geekhood, Technology