“Why should I spend $90 on something so outdated?” asked Eduardo Siguel, a father of two Montgomery County students who says he has been arguing with his kids about buying a graphing calculator. “I want my children to be able to use technology of their generation.”
Dozens of smartphone applications perform the same graphing functions, for the cost of a candy bar. In Prince George’s County, math teachers in some middle schools will experiment this year with using iPads instead of calculators, officials said. Fairfax County teachers also are exploring the idea. Montgomery has not looked into it because cellphones aren’t allowed in class, said Ed Nolan, the county’s math coordinator.
Officials in the three counties said they worry about turning to technology that could be just a fad — particularly when it’s not allowed on standardized tests such as the SAT.
In math education, there have long been twilight moments when one tool is eclipsed by another. But acceptance of those tools hardly ever comes easily, said Peggy Kidwell, a curator at the National Museum of American History who is an expert on the subject.
Twenty years ago, there were debates about whether calculators would ruin the discipline of learning arithmetic. Now, educators grapple with the idea that the same tool that allows disruptive, under-the-desk text messaging can actually facilitate learning.
Doug Mitchell, a math teacher at Nova High School in Seattle, has taken the jump. Frustrated that his school couldn’t afford traditional graphing calculators for all of his math students — some models cost $100 apiece or more — he encouraged students two years ago to start pulling out their phones. It worked. “I found that my students were actually getting calculus a little faster,” Mitchell said.
“It was just easier to understand,” said Levena Ostergaard, 16, one of Mitchell’s students, who uses an iPhone app called GraphCalc. “There were just fewer buttons, and it was easier to manage.”
Facing such competition, manufacturers are seeking strategies to prevent the graphing calculator from going the way of the abacus.
“We are in a modern-day calculator war,” said Greg Yurchuck, director of Casio America’s Marketing Education Division.
This year, Casio and competitor Texas Instruments are pushing new graphing calculators equipped with color screens and other features designed to preserve their place in schools.
Both companies understand that math tools come and go, based on the needs and expectations of the country. Slide rules were the gadget of choice for young math dynamos from the late 19th century through much of the 20th, until they were sidelined by pocket calculators in the 1970s. In 1986, Kidwell said, Casio brought the first graphing calculator, the fx-7000G, to the United States. (It had been introduced in Japan.)