Calculators and Computer Software in Mathematics Courses

In all of our mathematics courses, calculators and computer software, when used, are used as tools to support the curriculum. None of our courses are particularly focused on teaching you to use these tools. We specifically use tools that you can learn very quickly, so that our classes and instruction are focused on teaching you the concepts and then on using the tools to do more interesting and more complex problems than you could do by hand.

The tools we use are scientific (or business) calculators, graphing calculators, and computer software. This document has information to help you to understand how these will be used in the various courses and how you can use them at school if you wish or acquire them to use at home.

What's used in which courses?

In almost all mathematics courses (except perhaps the most basic developmental courses), students are expected to use a scientific or business calculator to do messy computations. While some PGCC campuses have these available for short-term loan in the labs or Testing Center, generally it will be best for you to have one of your own. Most students already have one. Also, they can be purchased for as little as $10. If you do purchase one, hold onto the manual that comes with it. You will probably find that useful. See below for some advice on how to buy one.

In the main calculus courses, substantial use is made of graphing technology. At this level, most students find it inconvenient to only be able to use it at school and buy what is needed to be able to use it at home. However, most of the PGCC campuses do have a some graphing calculators in the computer labs in which students can use graphing software, so it is not necessary for students to purchase anything.

In the algebra and trig courses instructors are encouraged to bring classroom sets of calculators to class occasionally and to help students become familiar with and comfortable using these as tools. Students should not be pressured to purchase anything, although students may be asked to use the calculators and computers available at PGCC to do some work outside of class.

In the higher-level courses (past Calculus II), most instructors will use some computer software. There should be plenty of access to computer labs at PGCC for all students in these courses. Also, we make efforts to identify public-domain or very low-cost software so that students who wish to use it at home can do so economically.

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What kind of scientific or business calculator is best?

Notice that a scientific calculator is one that does more than just the basic four arithmetic functions. In particular, it must do exponential and logarithmic functions. Students who plan to take technical math, trigonometry, or scientific calculus should have a scientific calculator, with trig functions. Students who plan to take statistics will find that a calculator that does two-variable statistics is useful. About half of the scientific calculators on the market will do this, and they don't particularly cost more than the others.

Students often find the kind with two-line displays easier to use than those with one-line displays. With a two-line display, you can see the formula you are typing in as you type it. Typically the price difference is only a dollar or two. And, when you see the numerical answer, the formula is still visible.

See the scientific calculator page from these companies. Look at the difference in appearance between the two-line display calculators and the single-line calculators. Texas Instruments | Casio | Sharp (If these links are no longer good, just do a web search for each of these companies, and, under "Products" look for "Scientific Calculators.")

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How can you use graphing technology at school?

Find information about what is available from the PGCC Math web page.

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What kind of graphing calculator should you buy if you want to buy one?

We can't afford (in either money or time) to provide and learn about all the types of calculators. Our instructors know how to help you with some of the Texas Instruments calculators. There are several different versions of the TI-83 and TI-84 for sale (see below) and our instructors can help you learn to do the required things on any of these. You can get some help with other models, such as the TI-86 or the older TI-85 or TI-82. Some, but not all, of the instructors are able to help with the TI-89 family of calculators and/or the CAS functionality of the TI-Nspire.

For more detailed information comparing these calculators and some older ones, see this page: Compare All TI Graphing Calculators.

 If you already have an different TI graphing calculator than any of these, look at our additional information about other models of TI graphing calculators.

Other companies, such as Casio and Sharp, have calculators with similar capabilities to those previously mentioned. If you use one of these, our instructors won't be able to help you very much. However, many PGCC mathematics students have used these and been successful.

Hewlett-Packard calculators are highly respected and are widely used by engineers. In the calculator world, HP is most notable for having pioneered the use of Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) in calculators. These worked differently from other calculators and were confusing to most students. These days, the RPN calculators are mostly in the more-expensive range of calculators. You should not be using one of these RPN calculators unless you have already learned to use it well. Do not expect any PGCC instructors to help you with it, as we do not provide any such calculators for the instructors to use.

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What computer software is available?

Graphing software:

This is changing quite rapidly. Your instructor will tell you what software he or she finds useful and why. As our instructors develop materials to help students choose software and use it, we will make links available here.

Computer Algebra Systems:

While the graphing programs listed above are very nice, another type of mathematics software (more complex, requiring better computers, and more expensive) is generally available in the world. These include Mathematica, Maple, and Derive, as well as others. They are often called "Computer Algebra Systems".