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Top 7 Uses for a Graphing Calculator

Top 7 Uses for a Graphing Calculator

Linsey Knerl
Reading time: 10 minutes
While computers and tablets have made research and math tasks easier for students everywhere, there’s no replacement for the standard graphing calculator. Most kids don’t begin using one until they reach the upper high school grades, but anyone hoping to do well in advanced mathematics should get acquainted with this device.
While tablets and phones may have some of the computational features math students need, their use is not generally permitted during testing. This is where it’s essential to be familiar with a graphing calculator if you are a student. But the usefulness doesn’t stop when you exit the classroom. Professionals in many fields benefit from using a graphing calc in their everyday work.
What can they do? Well, a standard model can handle simultaneous equations, plotting graphs, and more. Here are the most common ways to put your graphing calculator, also known as a scientific calculator, to work to make your math, science, and business tasks easier and more accurate.

Functions of a graph calculator

If you’re not familiar with many advanced math concepts, it may be difficult to grasp all that they can do. Here is just a sampling of the ways students and professionals make this tool work for them.

1. Algebraic equations

Beginning with first-year algebra, it’s appropriate to start using a graphing calculator, even though it is rarely required. Concepts such as basic function graphing, polynomials, quadratics, and inequalities are better visualized when students can both write out the equations and use an electronic input.
Algebra can be done without one, but using a calculator helps reinforce the concepts and gets students familiar with the buttons and basic functions of the tool. Second-year algebra students will be asked to master calculator-friendly skills like sequence graphing, tables, and the understanding and creation of a matrix.

2. Geometry and Calc

Next in the typical student’s math career is geometry. This is where concepts such as types of angles and hyperbolic functions become cemented. A good graphing calc can translate these skills from paper to screen.
You can also master parametric graphing, polar graphing, and more with a standard graphing calculator. These calc functions are almost impossible to do with pencil and paper, and by saving your work in your calculator, you can come back to work on problems easily after a break.

3. Trigonometry

While this course used to be an optional higher-math class for high schoolers, many colleges are requiring trig for anyone interested in a science, math, health, computer, or engineering degree.
Trigonometry functions that can be done with a graphing calc include figuring the amplitude, period, and phase shift of a standard graph. Because 5 to 10% of the ACT math problems and up to 20% of SAT problems will involve trigonometry concepts, it’s wise to brush up with your graphing calculator before testing.

4. Engineering

Many of today’s mechanical, chemical, and architectural engineers rely on a dependable graphing calculator to do even the most basic calculations. They enjoy having a larger screen with several memory modes to keep their calculations saved for later. It’s a favorite tool among those who dream big for a living, and with today’s graphing calcs offering a periodic table of elements and atomic weight and mass shortcuts, it’s a handy must-have for most professionals.

5. Computer Programming

Why would computer professionals need a separate graphing calculator, when they have a computer to use every day? Many computer programmers like having a second, smaller screen to work on when creating code and doing simple math problems.
Others have enjoyed the computer-to-calculator linking possibilities that transfer spreadsheets and data sets to their calculator for easier programming. Macros and other automated sequences are frequently handled by stand-alone calculators, freeing up the programmer and making them more productive.

6. Finance

There are many tools online for amortization, interest calculation, and compound interest predictions, but none exist in one handy, portable tool aside from the graphing calculator. Even the most basic calculator can save financial professionals’ most-used data for creating financial forecasts on the road. In areas where there is no WiFi or data connection using an online graphing calculator becomes impossible. In this case nothing beats what a standard, reliable, hand-held calculator can do to figure out common, yet complicated, financial calculations quickly.

7. Statistics

A very visual-heavy math area, stats will introduce students to statistical plotting, random number generation, scatter/box/whisker plots, and probability activities. It’s almost impossible to get through this math concentration without a masterful knowledge of how to use a graphing calculator and students who embrace all of the features have a significant advantage over other students.

Standardized testing

Depending on the classroom, graphing calculators may be allowed to be used during quizzes and standardized tests. While younger students probably won’t need one while testing, some classes such as calculus will require it.

Calculators in college entrance and AP tests

Most major college testing organizations such as the SAT, PSAT, and ACT allow them, so it’s in the student’s best interest to master using one well before test time so that they have the same advantage of every other test participant. Some AP course tests and college entrance exams allow the tool as well.

Know the testing rules before you go

It’s wise for any student with a math or science test coming up to review the rules for the particular test to see if their graphing calculator will be allowed. Not only does this ensure that they won’t be disqualified, but it gives them plenty of time to get acquainted with their preferred calculator model so that they aren’t fumbling around with keys and function tools at the time of testing.

Know if your calculator is permitted

Some graphing calculators have additional features that would cause them to be ineligible for use inside a testing environment. For example, many advanced calculators feature the periodic table of elements and may not be allowed into a science exam. For this reason, students are encouraged to master the use of entry-level graphing calculators first, then use the more feature-filled models for everyday use. They can then go back to the simplified models when it’s time for an exam.

What about websites or apps?

While graphing calculators have evolved quite a bit over the last 20 years, most serious mathematicians, science students, and teachers still carry one physical form of the device with them. Does that mean that it is the only way to calculate?
Online tools, such as graphing calculator apps and sites dedicated to calculating, can serve a purpose in performing the most basic tasks of a graphing calculator. It’s important to note that while many online apps and tools promise to do the same work as a stand-alone graphing calculator, most classrooms won’t allow the online tools to be used during tests.

What age groups are graphing calcs appropriate for?

Many kids get introduced to basic algebra as early as the first and second grades. “2 + X = 4” is an example of a very elementary equation that can be built on over and over until it handles more complex math elements. Starting very young kids with a graphing calculator gets them used to using it when it’s more necessary.
With kids grasping the power of tablets and smartphones from as early as 2 years old, we shouldn’t shy away from handing them a graphing calculator as soon as simple problems can be entered into the tool. The more familiarity you can instill in these amazing tools, the more likely students will be to embrace them when it’s practical for their math and science courses.

What to look for in a calculator

There are many models on the market to choose from, but not all graphing calculators are created equal. It’s not uncommon for students to compare calculators and quickly become aware of the perks that they wish they had gotten after just a few classroom sessions of use. To avoid buyer’s remorse, consider what your graphing calculator can do for you before you buy. Then ask these questions to determine your unique needs:

1. Are the buttons large, easy-to-read, or illuminated?

Younger children may have a difficult time finding and accessing the function buttons of a tiny calculator. Larger buttons, however, may make the tool bulky or cumbersome for travel to and from classes. If the tool is used in low-light settings like a classroom darkened for PowerPoint viewing, look for brightly colored labels on the buttons, backlighting, or glow-in-the-dark features.

2. How many lines does the screen show?

There are a number of screen features between brands and models, and many students prefer to see the answer to their problems in addition to the full equation or problem written out. Make sure that you know exactly how many lines a small LCD screen will allow, and what space a touch screen dedicates to problems.

3. What about battery life?

Most graphing calculators use a battery, but others come with additional solar power features. These calculators use very little power compared to a tablet or other device, but it’s smart to have options. Students shouldn’t have to worry about battery life when taking an important exam.

4. How durable is the graphing calculator?

Unlike other tech gadgets, these tools can last a lifetime if treated properly. You don’t need to upgrade to a new calculator every year, or even when moving from one advanced math class to the next.
For this reason, most graphing tools are made with a removable cover that also acts as a layer of protection for the calculators. It should resist damage from drops and handle being crammed into a backpack or pocket. Look for a graphing calculator that’s designed to last an entire high school and college career and then some.

5. Is it connected?

Can your graphing calculator download spreadsheets from your computer? Is it regularly updated online? Know how your tool gets new data and if it can be enabled or disabled for testing situations. Some of the best tools can send information to your computer for further manipulation but most of those aren’t approved for standardized testing in a classroom.

Calculators for success

HP 300s+ scientific calculator

Considering what students need in a graphing calculator, it’s reassuring to know that there are HP® options made with exactly the goals of the modern math or science scholar in mind. Featuring more than 300 math and science functions for classroom and everyday use, the HP 300s+ scientific calculator is an incredible value.
It’s affordable for even young kids to carry and has both solar and battery power options. The slide-on cover protects against bumps and drops and is perfect for low-light conditions.
This test-approved model shows 4 lines of math work and offers a 15-character textbook display so that students can simultaneously see their inputs and the results. Easy scrolling display options keep the calculator modest in size and price while still giving students the chance to use a full library of algebraic, trigonometric, hyperbolic, and other functions.

HP 35s scientific calculator

For an upgraded experience, the HP 35s scientific calculator may be a better fit. Used in the medical field and by surveying and engineering professionals, it boasts a 30KB user memory and is flexible for users who want to use either an RPN or algebraic entry-system logic. The two-line display shows more than a budget-model calculator but still keeps it reasonably priced for students.

More advanced calculators

For years, updates to the original graphing calc were limited to slightly larger displays, bigger buttons, and a range of colors. Even celebrity-endorsed calculators in limited-edition hues helped to bring a bit of buzz to what has been a standard mathematics tool for the last generation.
In recent years, some pretty exciting upgrades have been offered. Graphing calculators now come with full-color touch screens, can be connected to Bluetooth or the internet, and work with your laptop to create visual representations of your math problems so that they can be shared online or imported into presentations.

HP Prime wireless graphing calculator

One example is the HP Prime wireless graphing calculator, which embraces the visuals of a smartphone device with the simplification of a standalone calculator. It has ten lines of vibrant color display to work out your most advanced problems in school or at work.
When choosing a graphing calculator for students, you should understand that they will only use it if they know how to make it work for their personal situation. Don’t hesitate to invest in training materials, manuals, or tutoring sessions to get a grasp on what their tools have to offer. The right choice can propel them into years of classroom success and a potential future in a rewarding career.

About the Author

Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.

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