Desmos vs. “Yellow Calculators:” NS weighs in

Math is one of the most dreaded and hated subjects in schools across Utah, but few people consider how much the calculator you use affects your math class experience.

NS offers TI-Nspire CX graphing calculators in all of their math classrooms for free use. Students at the school know them as “the yellow calculators.” These devices can do everything that they need to do, but their complexity is unnerving to some students.

“They can do so much more than I even know how to do on them,” said math teacher Cheryl Hadley.

While these calculators are capable and expensive tools, there is an online calculator, called Desmos, that has many of the students at NS won over.

“I hate the yellow calculators,” said sophomore Gavin Iund. “They’re really hard to use; I will never use them. I like Desmos way more.”

The school’s calculators are notoriously hard to manipulate, while Desmos is known primarily for its simple interface.

“I like Desmos,” said math teacher Matt Syme. “It’s a wonderful resource for students to use. It is very user-friendly; it’s in a format that is very easy to manipulate and understand, so it is a really good tool to match algebra and graphing.”

 This simple and free app is an enticing alternative to the yellow calculators, but teachers at our school are not always so supportive of it.

“All it is is a fancy graphing program to graph stuff,” said math teacher Jed Brewer. “As far as the upper end capabilities, it doesn’t even come close.”

The conflict between these two calculators is not as controversial as it may appear. All of NS’s math teachers agree on the fact that the TI’s can do more advanced math in better ways, and that Desmos is easier to use. However, not all of them view ease as a good thing.

“Desmos is easy,” said Brewer. “[It] takes away [the students’] critical thinking.” 

He also explained that ease is a detriment, and that “all technology used for math diminishes your capacity.”

Brewer is a supporter of the yellow calculators, saying “they have their pros and cons, but I’d take the yellow ones any day.”

One of the biggest contrasts between Desmos and the TI’s is that Desmos is not allowed on Utah’s ACT test. The yellow calculators are not only allowed, but provided and encouraged. Due to this, Desmos loses value in the sight of some teachers.

“The Desmos calculator is really really easy to learn, ” said Syme, “but you can’t use it on tests. Whereas, the yellow calculators are more difficult to understand and learn, but you can use them. And they do the same thing.”

Strangely, the graphing capabilities of Desmos are not even close to what the yellow calculators can do. Even so, the simpler calculator is not allowed on the ACT. The ease with which students can use Desmos creates an interesting paradox.

“If they allowed [Desmos on the ACT],” said John Sadler, “then I’d probably start using Desmos more.”

As Brewer said, if Desmos was allowed on the ACT, a lot of problems would be solved.

Humans as a species crave leisure, and that is what Desmos provides. The yellow calculators are still capable, and people should still be able to put in the work to understand them.

“The yellow calculators are overrated in every regard. Desmos is more beneficial to students,” junior Jared Strait said. 

While the math teachers and students at NS all have their own preferences and opinions on this topic, what students use really shouldn’t matter in the long run.

“A calculator is as smart or as dumb as you are,” said Syme. “How about that? You still have to understand the math.”

Even if the students at NS start to care, they won’t be able to change what calculators they are required to use. And even if they could, intelligence is what determines the results of math, not the machine you use.

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