I am working with a group of A level students who have received an HP39GS graphing calculator. They got the calculators a couple of weeks ago, so hopefully they will at least have opened the package and turned the thing on. I will have about 3 or 4 hours with each of two groups tomorrow to give them ideas of things they can do with the machine. Clearly we live in a gadgety time. A lot of people will get a new phone every year or so, which is basically a computer, running a range of software packages, notably communication systems, but also, pretty much anything you care to mention.
So, on one level, to the average 16 year old, you would have thought a graphing calculator with a low resolution monochrome screen, which only runs one bit of software and can only communicate with other identical devices, connected with a wire, or with a computer to share files, would just not be very interesting. However, my last experience with students of this age and this machine suggests that they are bit more savvy than that. Actually, it is a new bit of tech that deserves an outing. Weirdly, the thing that swung it with the last group, was finding out that they could download Tetris from the internet to run on their calculator. Then, when I showed them that it would differentiate and integrate symbolic functions, they were very interested. Well, sure they could cheat on their homework, but they need to pass the exam, so that wasn’t the way they were thinking (although their teacher may have been), instead the possibility to check their thinking, and to explore what happens if they make slight changes to expressions, to get better control over their skills, was what interested them. What they said was that they liked the calculator because it sat nicely on the desk, it did what it did and didn’t get in the way. I thought that was intriguing. A lot of people interested in technology in education are very keen on the new tablets, which they say can do everything. Replace the text book, notebook, computer and calculator all in one. However, these students didn’t seem to like working that way. They had a computer to look stuff up on the internet (or do design work on projects and the like), a notebook to jot down notes, some books for reference and a calculator to work stuff out on. All to hand, all immediately available and all doing one job well. I was writing some gifted and talented text books recently and I found the same. I have quite a lot of pretty sophisticated maths software on my computer, but the screen was taken up with two side by side texts I was designing and editing, so, when I needed to work out some maths (find the general terms of different series), I used the computer algebra system on my calculator. Quick and to hand.
In China, there is a project where these devices have been given to higher school students. The professor in charge of the project told me that very soon the students had discovered that the calculator has a pretty high end programming language and so they were creating games software for the calculator, one had written a highly effective chess programme. Eric Schmidt of Google says that we are losing our edge in the UK because schools don’t teach kids to programme. In China, you give them an HP39GS and they teach themselves. I want to know what happens if you leave a device that speaks symbolic and graphical maths and that you can easily use as a programming platform in the hands of motivated maths students, what they will do with it. The hope is that like the Chinese students, they will take ownership of it, explore what it can do and start to speak its language. Compared to that, A level maths will seem pretty easy. I’ll let you know how it goes.