College engineering classes offer mathematical challenges far more advanced than anything most students see in high school. Generally, people assume that they need a powerful college calculator for these classes. As an engineering student, sometimes I found such calculators to be enormously useful, but in other cases they can be unnecessary or even hinder learning.
So, how do you know if you need a graphing calculator? Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of having a powerful calculator for your college engineering classes.
Personally, I found that I didn’t usually need a graphic calculator for homework and exams. My engineering problem sets often could be (and sometimes had to be) completed by hand, with arithmetic help that any basic scientific calculator can provide. On tests, I needed to show the work used to arrive at an answer, so a graphing calculator could only really be used to check answers. If I started to rely too heavily on graphing calculators during problem sets at home, it made doing the problems by hand on a test extremely challenging. When advanced graphing functions are required for work at home, you can use computer programs like Matlab, which many schools provide.
Also, it’s important to consider that the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) does not allow high-powered college calculators on its Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first of two exams required to become a licensed professional engineer. Their list of approved calculators includes scientific—but not graphing—calculators from Hewlett Packard (HP), Casio, and Texas Instruments (TI). Roughly the same policy exists for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), required for admission to many graduate programs.
Some engineering schools have adopted this policy in all courses. This way students can become accustomed to working by hand without having a disadvantage relative to other students in their classes. Professors at these schools feel that students’ learning is enhanced, rather than hindered, by constantly solving problems manually.
On the other hand, though, advanced college calculators certainly have their role and their advocates. Many students will be familiar with the TI-83 or TI-84 from high school calculus classes. These calculators are still highly useful in college engineering courses and can be supplemented with computer programs when necessary. TI also offers calculators with engineering-specific functions that can be extremely helpful when you don’t have access to a computer. The current line includes TI-89 Titanium, TI-Nspire CAS with Touchpad, and TI-Nspire CX CAS. HP offers very good alternatives with higher computing power, but an unfamiliar interface for most students. Many students find the transition to the HP 50g worthwhile and the new HP Prime is set to be a worthy addition.
I personally used a TI-89 throughout a broad range of engineering, physics, and math classes. Once I understood the material, I found that using an engineering calculator sped up the pace of my problem sets without any detriment to my learning, allowing me to focus on high-level concepts rather than getting bogged down in computations. Complementing the TI-89 with powerful computer programs, I was able to work efficiently through everything I needed to accomplish.
Ultimately, the decision of what college calculator to use for engineering courses should be based on the expectations of your professors. If most students will have access to a graphing calculator, you may be at a disadvantage without a good model. If, on the other hand, the professors discourage use of such calculators, you will undoubtedly be fine without one. Using the specific model recommended by your professors is probably your best bet.
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This post originally ran 10/1/2013.