OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Calculator use opens door to high school algebra

01/26/1998

CORVALLIS - Another study on the use of calculators in mathematics education has concluded that some of the more powerful instruments - which actually are more like a hand-held computer but still only cost around $150 - can be of significant help in learning high school algebra.

Progress in teaching this level of mathematics, which is often a major hurdle for average-ability high school students, could be a significant step forward in math education and a blessing for any freshman who's ever struggled with "y equals three x squared minus nine divided by six."

And use of such calculators in solving algebraic equations doesn't mean the students won't eventually learn how to do it themselves, educators say. It just means that at first they concentrate more on the concepts and less on the procedures.

"Based on this and other studies similar to it, there's no doubt in my mind that using calculators is a superior way to teach algebra," said Barbara Edwards, an assistant professor of mathematics at Oregon State University. "And that's important. Right now there's a widespread and valid concern that the traditional approach to math education isn't working.

"Math is often taught in a way that makes it seem boring and difficult," she said. "Our approach helps students understand how things work and how math can be applied to the real world."

The recent study was done by Edwards and other collaborators in a high school freshmen math class composed mostly of minority students in a Washington, D.C., classroom. It was part of an overall curriculum there that emphasized math concepts, not just skills.

Inexpensive, hand-held calculators have been used for some time now - and with success - in teaching arithmetic at elementary school levels, Edwards said. Other studies have shown the value of more sophisticated instruments in teaching high school and college calculus. But in between lies algebra, which for many students is the highest level of math expertise they attain, and the toughest.

Calculators, or many software programs available for personal computers, can easily solve the quadratic equations used in beginning high school algebra and even far more difficult equations that might challenge a college student, Edwards said.

"In our use of these calculators with freshmen high school students, we found they removed the grunge work and let the students concentrate on the ideas, setting up the equations," Edwards said. "That's really what math is all about, it 's not doing the things a calculator can do quicker and easier."

In one class exercise, for instance, students were asked to develop an optimal solution for running a high school talent show. Many variables, such as advertising, numbers of participants, concession sales, available audience and ticket prices came into play.

"If you charge too little for admission, you won't cover costs or make a profit," Edwards said. "Charge too much and no one will come. That's an algebraic problem and the teacher asked the students to create the best solutions, using their computers."

In the process, she said, even some students who previously had shown little interest or aptitude in algebra got excited, involved and did surprisingly well on the exercise.

Edwards said that as more research is done in this area and more schools increase their use of calculators and computers, such approaches will become far more common. Studies continue to show that using calculators really doesn't interfere with a student eventually learning more basic skills, whether it's addition tables or how to solve an algebraic equation.

"I know these approaches work," Edwards said. "I have a son who was never really drilled on his multiplication tables. He's now a professional mathematician."