As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of a basic calculators for computational purposes. I think everyone should have a device (that isn’t a computer program) to do the basic math with. As we continue in the world full of computers, I think we are losing the ability to manipulate basic math. Which is not the end of the world because we do have computers who can do the math for us. However, I think we need to make sure the lack of confidence with arithmetic doesn’t evolve into a fear of arithmetic. I think a basic calculator within easy reach can help solve the problems of both doing and fearing arithmetic.

Lets consider an example. Say I need buttons for a girl scout event. I want to buy 16 buttons and I found some for $.53 each and some for $.64 each, but I think the cheaper shipping might make the more expensive buttons cheaper. The relevant part of this example is that the computations are not my main goal. I think computations for their own sakes is the goal of 1% of the population. Everyone else wants to do something with the numbers after we have them! So we need to find ways to complete the math we need done for our goals with minimal mistakes and hassle of these mathematical details.

Having a separate calculator allows me to calculate the details on the side, physically. I think, mentally, a hand-held calculator reduces the stress of having to complete that calculation to get my work done. To rearrange my computer screen to see all the right information and to type it into my computer program makes the calculation a lot of work comparatively. It also makes the calculation physiologically more intimidating. I am saying, “this needs my full attention so I will open a new program on my computer just to handle this math stuff.” I know people who open Excel in order to add a string of 5 numbers. Excel is a total overkill for stuff like that. Having a calculator within easy reach is an important tool to keep the math anxiety to a minimum. Then I can just grab my calculator, punch a couple numbers in, and return to my computer task/phonecall/whatever, without spending a lot of time making the calculation the ‘hardest’ part of the process. It’s like a note pad to scribble your first draft on. Don’t let the arithematic take over your process, it’s mostly just brainstorming with numbers so keep it off to side where it belongs.

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About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.

What happened to the calculator in our heads?

Certainly no calculator is necessary for 16 x 64, since this is two to the fourth power times two to the sixth power, a result easily calculated mentally to be two to the tenth power or the famous 1 “K” used in talking about computers or 1,024, a little more than $10.

16 x 53 can be handled two different ways. 16 x 50 plus 16 x 3 is easily $8.48. However, I prefer four successive doublings or $1.06 – $2.12 – $4.24 and finally: $8.48. Math being the logical process that it is, both answers match.

I think using that wonderful calculator between our ears will take even bigger steps to make arithmetic less intimidating.

I always use Excel when I need to “add a string of 5 numbers.” If I add 5 numbers on a calculator, especially using the tiny keys on the small ones or scientific ones, I’m always wondering if I hit the wrong key. Without Excel, I need to write the numbers down and add them on paper to check, or at least, add them a second time on the tiny key calculator.

However, with Excel, I have a record the numbers and can check that I entered them correctly – no need to add or enter the numbers a second time.

In the old days, adding machines had paper tapes and you could always check the tape.

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I use mathematica to do all my calculations. That’s because a computer usually is always around me.

Extreme scene most likely not going to happen at all:

1. In school, during physics, need to calculate 24*23.

2. Walk to the school library 100 meters away

3. hack into school system and grant me permissions to download and use some sockets.

4. Download Putty and SSH into my mathematica server.

5. Enter equations and see the result.

6. While at it, factorize some girl’s phone number.

You are clearly right, having a calculator in my reach would reduce step 1-5 into nothing.

Yes, I have definitely opened up Mathematica to get the square root of something when no physical calculator was within reach. (how embarrassing right?) Regardless, I was talking to a friend of mine who mentioned she would prefer a graphing calculator to a basic one because then she could see her previous work. She also mentioned adding machines to see the tape.

Another interesting thing is most people can’t do arithmetic in their heads. Especially the math-phobic ones. So making arithmetic non-threatening to the non-mathematicians is, as the mathematicians would say, a non-trivial task.

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