QAMA: The only calculator a student should ever use

QAMA: The only calculator a student should ever use

Summary: Wait for it...a calculator that requires students to give a good estimate of their results before giving the exact answer. Go figure.

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TOPICS: Reviews
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Long, long ago, before I discovered the joys of public school administration, before I fled from said administrative post for the easy life of private industry, before I left private industry behind to focus on writing and educational policy, I was a math teacher. And in my math classes, we rarely used calculators.

Calculators are great. I'm not at a point in my life where I really need to do long division by hand. I don't need to calculate this or that over and over to countless decimal points by hand. In fact, to be honest, most people don't, our students included. The drill-and-kill teaching methodology that pervades most math classes has single-handedly wiped out any and all motivation among young people to actually learn and pursue careers in mathematics.

Calculators are designed to eliminate the need for repetitive, tedious arithmetic, leaving time to actually think about the math. When used correctly in the classroom, modern graphing calculators can do wonders for visualization, simulation, and encouraging that critical thought that we're all after. Even simple calculators (or spreadsheets or any number of other apps or programs) can be used with younger students to explore advanced concepts, introduce algebra, etc. The reality, though, is that calculators are a crutch 95% of the time and the average student is incapable of defending, deriving, estimating, or understanding the numbers that a calculator spits out.

Calculators were supposed to eliminate the tedium and simple mistakes that plague many calculations but instead have become the go-to device for any math problem. Worse, students frequently lack the mathematical savvy to know when the answer output by the calculator doesn't make sense. Estimation, it would seem, is a lost art.

Enter QAMA, truly one of the coolest, most thoughtful, welcome bits of ed tech to hit math classrooms in a very long time. Created by Ilan Samson, a retired physicist and serial inventor, to address exactly the problems I described above, the QAMA calculator forces students to provide a reasonable estimate for their answer before it will output the exact answer. I've embedded a portion of an interview and demo of the calculator with Ilan below.

Ilan covered much more complex functionality later in our interview (I'm afraid that when you stick a couple of math geeks together, we can get a bit long-winded, so I didn't include the entire interview here); however, the concept remains the same. Force students to demonstrate conceptual mastery and then give them the exact answer. The calculator is really quite amazing in its ability to determine appropriate degrees of allowable error and to prevent gaming of the system through any sort of trial and error. In fact, the logic built into the little machine would make one heck of a case study in a computer science class.

The calculator also allows for the estimating requirement to be turned off, but not with out a set of randomly flashing LEDs alerting instructors that students aren't stepping through the full process in determining their answers. It isn't often that a device will make me really say "Wow - this could be a game-changer." The QAMA calculator, though, is precisely that. At around $20 a piece, these little devices are quite inexpensive and yet stand to change the way a couple generations of students have been using calculators. The ability to simply estimate is so critical in not just mathematics, but in all applications of math; the QAMA calculator is a no-brainer place to start in shifting the way our students learn math, logic, reasoning, and more.

Think I'm overstating this? Order one and try it for yourself. Or give it to a kid and help him work through some math problems and see if it doesn't very fundamentally change the way he thinks about math.

Topic: Reviews

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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9 comments
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  • Calculator

    This calculator has a good price.
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    orbasoft
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      A dumb-a_s in every crowd. And this one = in an article about calculators; I hope his boss gives him an att-a-boy - a week off WITHOUT PAY and a public apology for dumping a good company's name. THOUGHT_less.
      DUGnYAZOO
  • Modern day slide rule.

    Reminds me of the slide rules I had to use as an engineering student in University in the 60's. They would give you the exact numerical answer (OK...exact to 3 digits) but you had to figure out where to put the the decimal point yourself. Really sorted out the students with common sense (a trait missing in many engineers) from those just going through the motions.
    RCS_hkt
  • Not the 'only calculator a student should ever use'

    What you are basically trying to foist on us is that if someone cannot do math 'in their head' then they shouldn't be allowed to do math at all.

    Sorry, but that does not fly today. It might have 200 years ago before slide rulers and before calculators, but not today.
    Lerianis10
    • No, what we're saying...

      is that everyone should be able to do math in their head - at least basic stuff. You cannot fully participate in today's society if you are not sufficiently well educated, which includes math.
      Unusual1
    • Estimate, not in-their -head math.

      Lwrianis, you missed the POINT. You can't ESTIMATE either, can you?
      Round (convert) the numbers to numbers you can do in your head for the ball park the real calculator's answer should fit in. Kind'a like the drunk figures how many beers will be too many to drive home past the cop shop.
      DUGnYAZOO
  • Teach With The Help Of Calculators, Not In Spite Of Them

    Why not take advantage of calculators in teaching, rather than treat them as some sort of "cheating" or "crutch"?

    It's easy to get a wrong answer out of a calculator, and if you don't have the ability to estimate what the result should roughly be, you will blindly trust the wrong answer. So why not set exercises involving mistakes in calculations, and have the students debug them?

    That way they will learn how to appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the technology. Which is a good attitude to have to any technology.
    ldo17
    • Agreed

      I agree with you. Technology should be used as a resource, not a crutch. After all, it's important to know how to check your work in case you mess up on the calculator.
      katiej457
  • His Holiness Saint Mathematicus the Imperial.

    The whole education premis is bullshit - along with the supporting arguments.

    I do my maths in 4 ways per problem, unless time and sheer necessity force me to do otherwise.

    1. I make myself do the problem - as in ALL of it, in my head.

    2. Then I do it pencil to paper.

    3. Then I do it on the abacus - one that I designed myself.

    4. Then I use the graphing calculator.

    I do this because the practice is good and it's not very long before you become a "mystical saint" of the type who can play 20 games of chess at the same time in their head - remembering all the moves made, all the current positions and all the possible future moves - in each of the games.

    One develops vision.
    Wroger Wroger