How TI Made Calculators a Classroom Staple

Calculators have become so ubiquitous in the STEM classroom that it is difficult to imagine a time where they were not. Here, the school technology experts at TechMart discuss the history of TI’s classroom impact, and how calculators benefit STEM students.

The first electronic calculators, much like the Casio Computer Company’s Model 14-A, were big and bulky; approximately the size of a desk. Only able to add, subtract, multiply and divide, early electronic calculators were not practical for the classroom. In 1958, Texas Instruments (TI) engineer Jack Kilby created a functioning integrated circuit which allowed small, handheld calculators to be created. TI invented the first one in 1967, and from there the handheld electronic calculator grew into a powerful machine, capable of complex functions with far longer battery lives. By the late 1970s, the price of calculators dropped considerably, making the devices even more commonplace in the business world and average household.

Soon after this development, educators began to realize that whether they agreed with it or not, students would be using calculators at home to complete their math and science homework. In 1975, the National Advisory Committee on Mathematical Education issued a report recommending that all students in the eighth grade and higher should have access to a calculator for all classwork and exams. By 1980, the committee recommended that students in all grade levels have access to calculators. Connecticut became the first state in 1986 to require students have access to calculators for all state-mandated testing.

Now, TI graphing calculators are one of the most commonly used instruments in classrooms of all grade levels. While the ubiquity of calculator use in school has been controversial for some, it has proven a valuable tool to promote equity in STEM courses. As tedious algebraic manipulation, as well as rote pencil-and-paper computation can often prevent students from becoming fully engaged with mathematical concepts, allowing the use of calculators provides that students can spend more time thinking critically, understanding context, problem solving, and checking to ensure their answers are correct and logical. Calculators are an equalizer in the STEM classroom, helping those who would otherwise be bored or frustrated by difficult calculations move past basic computation and toward true understanding of math concepts.

Of course, it is critical that mental math and pencil-and-paper computation is still taught – students must know basic skills before enjoying the computational ease that calculators provide. That being said, calculators do not create “lazy” students, as some fear. Rather, they help save time and allow students to skip an antiquated procedure which requires very little mathematical understanding. Students must still understand how to set up a problem, choose the appropriate operation and determine the accuracy of the answer, all of which demonstrates a true understanding of mathematics.

Furthermore, educators must acknowledge the world in which their students are preparing to enter – a world dominated by technology. An integral part of a student’s education is ensuring they become competent and capable adults in whichever field they choose to work, many of which will be technological fields. By allowing students access to calculators like the TI, educators are fostering a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and preparing students to enter a world rich in technological advances.