Do Math and Scientific Calculators Make Us Lazy?
Ever since they came on the market about 50 years ago, handheld math, calculus, and scientific calculators have fueled a debate that still rages on to this day. Do they strengthen our fundamental math and science skills and fuel our intelligence? Or do they just make us mentally lazy and perpetuate a counterproductive effect, causing academic weakness?
Calculating the Value of Handheld Calculators
At the core of the divisive issue is whether or not today’s students still learn to think mathematically and scientifically and to apply math theory as their predecessors were forced to do in the days before calculators. Naturally, in the digital age, we tend to think of this as an exclusively contemporary phenomenon or controversy applicable only to the 21st century. But great thinkers have actually been grappling with the issue of labor-saving technology and its impact on students for centuries.
The ancient philosopher Plato, for instance, worried that the technology of writing would dumb-down the population. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, back in those days writing down words – the invention of basic penmanship – was considered “new high tech.” Plato assumed that once people gained ease of access to written information they would no longer put in the effort to develop an individual capacity for critical thinking. They would lose their scientific curiosity and their academic vigor would diminish.
Doing it the Old Fashioned Way
Plato’s fears were unfounded, and writing has the opposite effect, opening up a whole new world of information exchange. Similarly, it would be foolish to assume that if we would ban handheld computers we would have more innovation in the scientific world. But that should not take anything away from argument that students should still learn the fundamentals, either.
Nobody is arguing that the rigor and know-how it takes to operate a slide rule or perform complex calculus by hand on a blackboard is not a great asset. We should celebrate anyone who has those skills, and we should not stop teaching them just because we now have digital devices and circuit boards. Slide rules can definitely get the job done, even if it does takes weeks to solve a problem that a Texas Instruments device can solve in a matter of seconds. We have Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, jet engines, nuclear weapons, and computers to hammer that point home. Aeronautic engineers did, after all, put a man on the moon using the simple slide rule.
Scientific Calculators Fuel Scientific Discover
If we want to be really ironic we can point to the fact that the scientific calculator made by Texas Instruments is one of the most useful and innovative creations in the history of modern math – but even it was invented without the help of a scientific calculator. But there is no question that without handheld graphing and scientific calculators many scientific discoveries and technological innovations would not be possible.
What is perhaps most important to consider is that the people who gave us those innovations may not have pursued math and science in the first place, without the convenience of the calculator. As students they may have struggled too much with the painstaking pencil and paper methods, and given up or changed their academic focus and career goals. But if the act of learning math is drudgery, they will be discouraged.
Removing Barriers to Education
That claim is supported by a study done at Arizona State University which revealed that students at all levels of learning do, indeed, benefit from using calculators. Educators quoted in the study found that the confidence of students increases, and so does their ability to engage in problem-solving. The research also indicated that the graphing calculator helps students develop more abstract algebraic thinking.
Perhaps the most compelling contribution from that particular research at Arizona State was the revelation that having access to calculators allows many students to overcome barriers to computation. The gadgets give them a significantly enhanced opportunity to learn, explore, and advance in mathematical and scientific academics.
Teach the Basics but Utilize Technology
The bottom line is that technologies like the scientific calculator give us a tremendous advantage. To make the most of them and leverage their value to the optimum, however, we also need to continue to teach students the basics of math and science. The two go together, which is why “pencil and paper” math has a place in today’s classroom alongside the modern calculator.
Giving students the knowledge to use both will empower them with a better, more well-rounded grasp of underlying theory and its practical applications in the real world. Then, armed with that kind of rich basis of knowledge they will be able to do exponentially more with the modern tools of the trade such as the scientific graphing calculator. Make it easier to solve problems by giving students the right tools and they will be inspired to solve more of those problems. Since solving problems is the goal of math and science, the handheld calculator is priceless.