
A MATH STUDENT'S BEST FRIENDHow to pick the right graphing calculator for your high school number cruncherOne of the stranger items in my house is an eightfootlong working model of a slide rule rescued from the demolition of a high school. Devices like it once graced thousands of math classrooms. But no more. In today's math class, the slide rule has been replaced by the graphing calculator. And while the slide rule was a mathematical curiosity that few students ever learned to use effectively, the graphing calculator has won a place in every math student's backpack. Entire courses are based on the devices. Their use is encouraged on the SAT and SATII college entrance tests and required for the calculus advancedplacement exam. REALWORLD. If you have a highschool student who's taking a course beyond firstyear algebra, a graphing calculator should be near the top of your backtoschool list. In addition to traditional calculator functions, it can take an equation such as y=x2+2x+3 and display a graph and a table of values. You can zoom in and out on the graph and use the cursor to find the coordinates of any point. Teachers have taken these abilities and rebuilt the math curriculum around them. These revised courses, based on National Council of Teachers of Mathematics guidelines that encourage calculator use at all grade levels, emphasize using math in realworld situations and, especially, using calculators to collect and analyze experimental data. Although some schools supply calculators for classroom use, most students will want one of their own. There's a profusion of models, with prices ranging from about $70 to nearly $200, but choosing one is easier than it may seem. First, find out if the school has a preference in calculators. Most do, and nearly always it's for Texas Instruments. Although perfectly fine calculators are sold by Sharp, Casio, and HewlettPackard, seven years of carefully built relationships with educators and textbook authors has given TI a lock on the market. Teachers are most likely to use TIs in classroom demonstrations. TI currently offers seven models, but only two make sense for most students. The strippeddown TI80 hasn't found much of a market, while the TI81, TI82, and TI85 are obsolete units kept in the catalog for schools that have standardized on them. IDEAL. For most collegeprep students, the TI83 (about $95) is the calculator of choice. Its advanced statistical functions and easytouse data tables make it ideal for the new math curriculum. Students who plan to take courses beyond firstyear calculus might consider the $120 TI86, which can handle differential equations. But its power comes at a price in userfriendliness, and students who don't need the extra functions are better off without them. The TI92 is a $170 marvel that can do symbolic algebra, but it would be most useful in a class built around its abilities. It's also not permitted for standardized tests. The one nonTI calculator I would consider is the $85 HP 38G. HP's technical calculators such as the 48G have long set the standard for both power and mindboggling complexity, but I found the 38G at least as easy to use as the TI offering. If a school hasn't standardized on TIs, it would be a good choice. Educators debate whether these calculators have made it easier for students to grasp tough math concepts. But the devices certainly have relieved math of much of its drudgery. Choosing the right one is a great investment in any student's future.
BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM

Updated Aug. 28, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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