After recently reading an article on the internet written by a father who was absolutely furious that (1) graphing calculators are so expensive, and (2) they haven’t come down in price over the years as electronic devices usually do; I have decided that I need to give this issue some historical perspective as well as addressing his complaints.
First, though, I would like to reassure this father and all parents out there that you are not alone in these frustrations. In 1988, the high school where I was teaching mathematics adopted a textbook series (UCSMP) that was highly graphing calculator dependent; and I spent the rest of my mathematics teaching career discussing this very issue with many parents. Age calculator However, because I am probably considerably older than most of you who have had to deal with buying your children graphing calculators–which means I went to high school BC (Before Calculators); and because I was a math major is college; and because I spent many years teaching higher level mathematics courses using the graphing calculator, I have a very different perspective on the graphing calculator.
When I was in high school, calculators were not yet readily available and would not have been allowed in any high school math classroom anyway. I purchased my first calculator in 1968 for my college Calculus class. That calculator was huge (about 4 inches wide, 6 inches long and 2 inches thick), had to be plugged into the wall, only had a one line screen, and only performed 4 functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). It cost $99 which was a great deal of money in 1968; but I considered it worth every penny. It was going to save me so much time by eliminating many time-consuming and tedious calculations (especially long division). I was excited and considered it a bargain.
My next calculator was purchased in 1973 for my graduate degree. I was going to be taking both math statistics and psychology statistics and both courses required being able to calculate the standard deviation of a set of data. This requires finding the square root of a number which is a painstaking process when done by hand! My new calculator still had only one line on the screen, but it was much smaller (about 2 inches by 3 inches and thin), ran on batteries, and had one additional function. It could calculate the square root of a number in addition to the normal four functions. I paid $99 for this calculator as well which was still a great deal of money. But I was so excited by the square root button that, again, I felt it was worth every penny. Math was going to be so much easier now.
Small calculators were becoming available, but it took many years for the philosophical issues around allowing calculators in the classroom to be settled. Many experts felt that the calculator would ruin students’ abilities to perform basic skills, and it has done exactly that. But others experts saw the calculator as allowing students to delve deeper into mathematics and allow for much more complicated situations to be studied, and it has done that as well.
Now, jump forward to 1988 and Air Academy High School District #20 with its graphing calculator based textbook series and the new need for every student to have a graphing calculator. Enter the TI-80. Then the TI-85. Then the TI-83 and TI-83+. The price of each of those calculators? You guessed it–$99. I retired from teaching in 2005, but because I proctor AP exams for a local high school, I know that schools are now using the TI-84+. TI has introduced two new graphing calculators, the TI-Nspire and the TI-Nspire CAS. Only time will tell if high schools will start recommending/using either.
So, does the father have a valid point about the cost of calculators coming down as electronics usually do? In my opinion, NO. This reduction in price applies to products performing the same task. In reality, a calculator that will perform the functions of my first two $99 calculators can be found today for $2.99. That’s two dollars and ninety-nine cents! I consider that a major drop in price. (I will agree that the TI-83 should be coming down in price a little because it has been around for several years. Likewise, the TI-89.)
What makes this price-drop issue not apply to these calculators is the fact that every new graphing calculator has added so many new features and functions. We now have calculators with algebraic, geometric, trigonometric, logarithmic, statistical and calculus functions. It is actually quite amazing that they only cost $99. Each of these calculators is a new and more capable computer for $99 to $149. Keep this in perspective. We spend more on tennis shoes that will be out grown or worn out in six months; and we spend considerably more on iPods which often become literally obsolete (not useable) because Apple makes slight changes in connectors. While it is true that new calculators come out with nifty new features (like the touch pad on the TI-Nspire) the other calculators do not become obsolete. The TI-84+ is still as good a calculator as it was. It just isn’t quite as nifty.