Is it just me, or are graphing calculators overly complicated? I've never been a big fan of calculators; I think they're a crutch on which most kids in the States rely far too heavily. However, when used correctly, they can certainly be a fine tool for automating tedious calculations.
This is nothing new. I've blogged about calculators plenty of times before. This particular bit of irritation, though, comes from their interface. There are a lot of teachers (and students) who are quite adept with calculators and have mastered the ins and outs of the TI series of graphing calculators. I'm not one of them, but I also happen to be fairly savvy with the average electronic device. I'm perfectly happy to poke around a bit, check a manual as needed, and generally muddle my way through whatever device you hand me.
This particular morning, though, I was helping my oldest son with his statistics homework before school. He only wanted to generate a series of z-scores for a given dataset; he knew how to calculate them by hand, but neither of us could figure out how to do it. It's possible that this wasn't even an available function, but as we dug through the interface and the ridiculously oversized manual, it occurred to me that a lot of math students would be better served by Excel or an entirely new programmatic interface separate from a calculator.
Imagine a calculator program on a netbook that dispensed with the traditional calculator interface and allowed students to really use calculators for their intended purposes: easy automation and quick visualization. Sure, there would be a new interface for kids to learn, but I've been saying they need to think programmatically for a long time. Maple, for example, is a bear to learn, but a Maple-lite type application running on a netbook would be far more useful long term than figuring out the correct sequence of buttons to push on a TI-89. Even a spreadsheet application would generally be more useful and build better long-term skills than a calculator in most cases.
Now if someone would just make a netbook with an attachable numeric keypad and write some cool, interactive programmatic math software, we'd be golden, right?