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Top 5 Uses for a Scientific Calculator

Top 5 Uses for a Scientific Calculator

Daniel Horowitz
Reading time: 10 minutes
Most of us carry around a basic calculator with us at all times; otherwise known as our smartphone. But what if you are taking advanced math and science classes? Or if you work in an industry that regularly uses complicated calculations to design or develop advanced concepts like engineering, surveying, medicine, or chemistry?
Then you need something better suited to solving your difficult problems. A scientific calculator will fit the bill. And if you plan to take a higher-level math class any time in the near future, your professor may require you to use a scientific calculator.
We’ll take a look at 3 HP scientific calculators that have different price points at the end of this article, but first, let’s dive into exactly what it is and 5 things you can use your scientific calculator for.

What is a scientific calculator?

Scientific calculators perform the same functions as their standard electronic calculator counterparts, but they also have myriad other features available. There are three main categories of calculators on the market today: business, basic, and scientific.
It’s likely that you have already used a basic calculator in your high school math classes, and you may have even used a business or graphing calculator in an economics or business statistics course.
The scientific calculator, however, is the only one that can handle certain functions in fields such as trigonometry, physics, chemistry, and engineering.
A scientific calculator has additional features that allow you to work with exponents and logs, which require more memory in order to perform functions for the best results.
While you can also do basic calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, that barely scratches the surface of the types of equations this calculator can handle.

What should I look for in a scientific calculator?

If you expect to take any classes that dive into geometry, scientific notation, trigonometry, engineering, and physics, then it’s likely you will have to learn how to use a scientific calculator at some point.


You shouldn’t expect to spend more than $200 for your scientific calculator. In fact, HP has 3 under $60 (2 of them under $15). Expect to pay a bit more than you’ll pay for a basic or business calculator because of the features that come with it.


Depending on the manufacturer, you’re likely to have different labels for your functions. For the most part, they should be able to accomplish the same tasks. If you have access to your syllabus, double-check to make sure that you are purchasing the recommended option.

Bonus features

You don’t need to have the fanciest model in order to pass your class, but there have been some important advances to scientific calculators over the past few years. These include WiFi and the ability to share your work with classmates or your instructor.
Here are the top five uses for a scientific calculator and how you may be expected to use it in your next class.

1. Basic functions and exponents

Calculate basic functions such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You should keep in mind that the subtraction sign (-) is different from a separate negative function. This can end up causing some confusion concerning negative and positive numbers when you start using your calculator at first because the signs look similar.

Exponents, unknown numbers

Along with negation, you can also raise numbers to another power and find a square root of a number or formula.
Exponents are used in almost any math course past grade school, but only a scientific calculator can perform any algebraic function.
In addition to using your calculator to solve for a known number, you can use it for an unknown number. This is useful for algebra or any other more advanced math you may be studying.

Order of operations

Basic calculators are great for solving simple equations with one or two variables, but scientific calculators allow you to input a problem that has an order of operations. If you enter one of these equations into a regular calculator, it won’t be able to correctly determine which numbers should be addressed first.
However, once you enter the equation into a scientific calculator, it should provide you with the correct answer. This is because parentheses are included as an option, allowing you to solve more complex problems. This tells the calculator to perform that operation first, much like if you were doing it on paper.

Square root

It’s also possible to use a scientific calculator to find the square root of a number, and this is one of the simplest operations you can perform. Enter the number, hit the SQRT key, and your answer will appear.

Fast or correct? Now you can do both

Often, finding the answers to equations requires just using one or two keys, which can make solving difficult problems quicker and easier.
And while most instructors now encourage calculator use in their classrooms, it’s worth asking first if this type of device is allowed. Almost anyone can benefit from using a scientific calculator.

2. Logarithms

Once you have increased your knowledge and you’re learning new concepts related to calculus and trigonometry, it’s likely that you will have to learn about logarithms. These formulas help you to calculate speed, area, and much more.
In the past, these were done almost completely by hand. Now it takes only a moment to input the proper information and solve the problem using a calculator.

Medical and engineering made easier

Logarithms are mostly used by those involved in the medical and engineering fields, but other careers may encounter them at some point. They can be tricky to solve by hand, but with the help of a scientific calculator, the process can be much easier.
Your device will probably solve for the natural logarithm of an equation in most classes. Some teachers may only explain logarithms through the use of a scientific calculator because all it requires is knowing how to enter the correct formula.

Memory is key to solving logarithms

Another reason that you may want to consider using a scientific calculator for logarithms is that they have a built-in memory, which allows you to store certain equations.
If you are working on something that requires several sessions, you can tell your calculator to store what you have already input into the device. This makes it easy to return if you need to take a break or if you want to try another combination.

3. Sine, cosine, and tangent functions

For those taking a trigonometry or calculus course, sine functions are a given. They also often pop up if your career path involves any sort of engineering or architectural field.

Calculating the sine

A sine function is used to find the measurement of a certain angle, especially when other sides or angles are unknown. You may also encounter the inverse sine, which is often used to find the hypotenuse of a triangle.
Like logarithms, this calculation once took a while to solve as you went through one piece of paper after the next. With scientific calculators, you can get the answer almost immediately once you have properly entered the function. Look for sin, cos, and tan buttons on any calculator to make sure it includes these functions.

Graphing the sine

Another related calculation you may have to perform is the graphing of a sine. This is a direct way to show your work and many classes now require that you know how to graph various functions.

Cosine functions

Similarly, you can also graph and solve for cosine functions. The cosine of an angle is the measurement of the length of a triangle, and it is most often used in trigonometry courses. You’ll most likely use cosines to find the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle, and a scientific calculator also operates in the reverse with inverse cosines.
Cosines can be found for any angle, even if they are large or negative. Again, you may be required to show that you know what cosines are by using your calculator to create a graph.

Tangents in degrees or radians

Tangents are another concept you will have to learn in a trigonometry class, and this too involves finding unknown quantities. In geometry, you’ll most likely encounter tangents when calculating perpendicular lines.
In trigonometry, you’ll use it to find the value of an opposite side of the given values. You can also choose to receive your answer in either degrees or radians depending on what your instructor requires.
Again, a scientific calculator is the only kind of calculator that can find the answer these types of equations, and it’s likely that at some point you will need them in your schooling. This can be especially true if your instructor requires that you show you know how to graph certain functions, which may be part of your final grade.
Pro tip: Make sure that your calculator isn’t in radian mode if you want your answers in degrees, because this can throw off your equation and give you an entirely different answer than the one you are looking for.

4. Scientific notation

A scientific calculator isn’t just used for more complicated math problems. In fact, one of its best uses may be that it can calculate scientific notation. For numbers that can’t be written in decimal point form because they are too large, a normal calculator won’t be able to cover it.
You’ll most likely use scientific notation if you plan to work in a field related to science, engineering, and mathematics, and you will definitely need a more complex calculator to handle your homework.
If you’re wondering how to do scientific notation on a calculator, it’s not that complicated. In order to perform the operation:
  • Locate the 10^x on your device
  • Enter in your x value
  • Press the “Enter” button in order to receive the answer
Unlike basic calculators that can only handle smaller values, a scientific calculator can handle numbers on a much vaster scale, which can be useful when it comes to collecting data or working as a physicist or chemist. It can also calculate negative scientific notation.
For those looking to enter engineering, there is a special mode that can help you calculate equations specific to your field. You’ll find it as the ENG display mode on your device, and it’s designed to help communicate numbers orally and through reading.

5. Binary functions

Similar to how you would enter equations into your calculator to compute notations or logs, tangents, and sines, a scientific calculator can solve for binary functions. These equations require two inputs.
You’ll most likely encounter this in algebra or calculus when you are solving for an unknown, but you may also discuss it when learning about the Cartesian product and subsets.
This is another type of equation that is difficult to track without having a calculator that has memory, because if you can store the results the calculator gives you, you can build off the work that you have accomplished before or save your efforts for another time.

HP scientific calculators

Here are the best scientific calculators available from HP:

HP 35s scientific calculator

HP 35s scientific calculator
Get professional performance from the HP 35s scientific calculator. It’s HP’s ultimate RPN scientific programmable calculator—ideal for engineers, surveyors, college students, scientists and medical professionals.
  • Ideal for engineers, surveyors, college students, scientists, and medical professionals
  • Large 2 line display
  • 30KB of memory
  • 42 built-in physical constants
  • 800 memory registers
  • Over 100 built-in functions

HP 300s scientific calculator

HP 300s scientific calculator
Arm yourself with the sophisticated HP 300s+ Scientific Calculator with advanced arithmetic, algebraic and trigonometric functions to tackle your most challenging math and science courses.
  • Approved for use on most college placement exams
  • Solar-powered with battery backup
  • 4-line LCD textbook format display
  • 9 memory registers
  • 315 built-in functions

HP 10s scientific calculator

HP 10s scientific calculator
Choose the durable HP 10s+ Scientific Calculator with a user-friendly design, easy-to-read display and a wide range of algebraic, trigonometric, probability and statistics functions for your math and science classes.
  • Ideal for advanced math like algebra, trig, and stats
  • Solar-powered with battery backup
  • 9 memory registers
  • 240 built-in functions

In summary

Previously, entire classes were devoted to learning how to compute certain equations, and students may not have been expected to actually learn what those equations were for and how they would use them in future careers.
Thanks to the scientific calculator, it’s become easier to perform a variety of functions and see how they are likely to impact a career in the sciences or mathematics.

About the Author

Daniel Horowitz is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Daniel is a New York-based author and has written for publications such as USA Today, Digital Trends, Unwinnable Magazine, and many other media outlets.

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