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QAMA: The only calculator a student should ever use

Wait for it...a calculator that requires students to give a good estimate of their results before giving the exact answer. Go figure.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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