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Graphics calculators and science

Kissane, B. (1997) Graphics calculators and science. SCIOS: Journal of the Science Teachers’ Association of Western Australia, 32 (1). pp. 16-19.

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In recent years, new kinds of calculators have begun to appear in secondary schools, especially in mathematics departments. These calculators are commonly called 'graphics' calculators (or some variation on the adjective), because they have a small graphics display screen rather than the one-line numerical display that we have been used to with hand-held calculators. The appearance of these devices in schools has been hastened considerably by the official approval of their use in the TEE from the 1998 examinations in all mathematics subjects and also in some science subjects. It would be a mistake, however, to make the inference that these devices are mainly useful for examinations. Rather, the official TEE sanction is an acknowledgment that examination prohibition hampers the use of appropriate technology in schools.

Although they are relatively new to WA, having first appeared in class-set quantities in schools about six or seven years ago, graphics calculators can hardly be described as a 'new' technology. For example, they have been on sale to the general public in USA since 1985, and have been in widespread use in high schools for a decade. Similarly, they have been available in schools and used in A-level examinations in the UK since the late 1980's. The machines on sale today are arguably the third generation of graphics calculators. There are four manufacturers at present, each a familiar multinational company. In alphabetical order, they are Casio, Hewlett Packard, Sharp and Texas Instruments.

The main uses of graphics calculators are for students learning and doing mathematics. However, in Western Australia, it is almost always the same students learning both science and mathematics. So, we can expect that almost all science students in upper school will have an increasing level of access to a graphics calculator in the near future, and that many students will own their own model. Even in the lower secondary school, the most likely scenario for the near future is that a graphics calculator will become standard equipment for most students, instead of the scientific calculator. Although many schools continue to ask students to purchase a scientific calculator early in secondary school, the decreasing price of graphics calculators (the least expensive now around $60 tax exempt) are likely to encourage a rethink of this practice, to reduce the risk that students will need to purchase more than one calculator over their secondary schooling years.

This paper suggests some graphics calculator capabilities that may be of interest to science teachers, with the emphasis on student learning rather than assessment.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
Publisher: Science Teachers’ Association of Western Australia
Copyright: 1997 STAWA
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