Math By the Colors
Just as we wouldn’t think of watching a black and white TV, using just one color marker or teaching with a monochrome computer, graphing calculators are best when they have color screens to tell the story of numbers. It started last year with Casio’s FX-CG10 Prizm and now Texas Instruments introduces its Nspire CX, a calculator that best mixes hardware with software.
Based on TI’s Nspire line of monochrome calculators, the CX is surprisingly small and thin at 7.5 by 3.4 by 0.6 inches thick. In fact, it’s significantly smaller and lighter than the monochrome Nspire Handheld and slightly narrower and taller than Casio’s Prizm color calculator. There’s also a CAS version of the Nspire calculator with a color screen.
At 10 ounces, though, the CX is 2-ounces heavier than the Prizm.. The extra heft is noticeable, particularly when holding it in your hand to do tedious calculations. Like the TI-80 family, the CX includes a snap on cover to protect the screen and keys.
Both the CX and Prizm have startlingly bright 3.2-inch screens that show 65,000 colors and make monochrome displays seem murky and hard to read by comparison. The CX’s 320 by 240 resolution is second best compared to the Prizim’s more detailed 216 by 384 resolution display, but its squarer shape works better for graphing.
Inside the CX is a powerful ARM processor along with 64MB of memory and 100MB of storage space. Like so many other calculators, there’s no provision for using an SD card to add more storage space or import items. You can transfer data between calculators and a computer with the CX’s USB connector and included cable.
Key to its success is TI’s OS 3.0 software. The CX relies on hierarchical drop down menus that make it seem more like a handheld computer and less like a calculator. My experience with a 13 year old is that students will immediately get it and learn its nooks and crannies as if it were the newest cell phone.
The center of attention is the ScratchPad, where there’s the choice between calculating and graphing. The former has a simple line by line approach while the latter requires either entering the points or a function to plot. The screen can accommodate many different graphs in a variety of colors but at about five plots the small screen gets crowded.
The CX’s input keys will be familiar to users of TI’s earlier Nspire and TI-80 series graphing calculators, although there are several significant differences. On top of a few new keys, there’s a wonderfully useful touchpad for moving an arrowhead around on the screen. While the CX has its touchpad front row center, just below the screen, the Prizm’s touchpad is over on the side, much smaller and more awkward to use.
There are dedicated keys for everything from the basic arithmetic operators and calling up trigonometry functions to pi and e. Many keys do double duty and there’s an alphanumeric keyboard below with the critical x, y, and z variables highlighted in white. Everything is easily handled with one hand, but it favors those adept at finger typing on their smart-phones. In fact, an add-on mini keyboard might those struggling to use the calculator’s keypad.
It picks up where the 80 series leaves off and can use many of the accessories that schools have invested in. It can connect with TI’s WiFi adapters as well as a variety of Vernier electronic sensors for performing physics labs.
The system stands out from the crowd in its ability to create and work with a variety of documents. In fact, with a little prep work, nearly an entire lab can be put together on the CX calculator. That’s because it has a built-in spreadsheet program for recording data and can work with documents that are then transferred to a computer for final work and submission. Alternatively, a variety of in-class and homework can be set up on the calculators for the kids to work with, fill out and digitally turn in.
A big step forward in making math more visual was the Prizm’s ingenious ability to overlay graphs over photos so that the pitch of a roof might illustrate an equilateral triangle or the suspension cables on a bridge might be used to show a hyperbolic function. The CX can do this as well, but because its screen is squarer, you can often use more of the picture and there’s less wasted screen space.
The CX can take a student from Pre-Algebra through Trigonometry, Geometry, Pre-calculus and Statistics all the way to AP Calculus. It’s been approved for most high-school tests, including SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, ACT, AP, IB and Praxis. I love the Press-to-Test feature that in a second gets the calculator ready for an exam.
As is the case with earlier TI devices, the calculator is just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. Under the surface, each CX comes with a copy of the TI-Nspire Student Software, which puts the keypad layout and screen onto a PC or Mac computer. It’s perfect for demonstrating a procedure on a projector or having kids do calculator homework without an actual calculator.
On top of that, TI has a huge downloadable library of lesson plans, assignments, videos and teaching suggestions for using the Nspire calculator. In addition to guides for teaching biology, chemistry and physics, there are ones for math. In fact, TI has just released a slew of chemistry, physics and biology-themed material for its calculators available on the company’s FaceBook page.
A big bonus for schools wanting to do away with throw-away batteries is the CX’s rechargeable battery pack. It takes a couple hours to charge and will power the calculator for about two weeks of intensive use.
After using the calculator for several weeks and exploring its intricacies, I’m here to say that this is one powerful device. If I’d had it when I was a high schooler, I might have been a better student.
+ Thin and Small
+ Great color screen
+ Works with documents and images
+ Can use all accessories