The calculator effect

For the cost of a good pair of sneakers, a high school student can stop at Radio Shack and buy the TI-89 - a "graphing calculator" that can almost do his algebra homework for him (he still has to press the buttons).

One of the biggest challenges facing math teachers is the availability of sophisticated new calculators that can make even good students feel that learning math is a waste of time, experts say.

College math used to be a league beyond calculators. But now, college students can rip through higher-order math homework using the same machine to solve symbolic or numeric differential equations, linear algebra, and graph all of that in 3-D images.

With that kind of horsepower, why learn how math really works? It's a question that keeps Deborah Hughes Hallett, a University of Arizona mathematician, up at night. "We're at a new frontier," she says. "I think math teachers in secondary schools and even college haven't thought through the existence of symbolic calculators. We have to rethink high school algebra and calculus."

But for Dr. Hughes Hallett, the crying need is not for a ban on calculators, but for curriculum reform - and it can't come soon enough, she says.

"The solution is to rethink the curriculum so the important ideas get across even with the calculators," she says. "Otherwise we're going to convince a whole generation of kids that algebra doesn't matter - that it's just some bizarre hurdle to get to college. One has to convey how the subject builds on calculators rather than being trivialized by them."

Otherwise, she says, the student reaction is automatic: "Oh, man, this is so dumb."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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