December 21, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

In the wrong hands, a graphic calculator is useless, intimidating, or both.

But for North Carroll High School senior Jarrod Clink, the latest piece of technology to hit upper-level math presents infinite possibilities.

"I'd like one just because it makes homework so much easier," Jarrod said. "It helps me picture it."

Jarrod and his classmates are among the first students in the county to use graphic calculators. Eventually, all five high schools will include graphic calculators in classes such as calculus, algebra II, analysis and even science.

But it will be a few years before schools can afford to buy enough so that students can check them out at night to use on homework.

On the retail market, the calculators cost more than $80, and may appear on the Christmas lists of a few teens like Jarrod who really know math.

"You have to think more with this than without it," said Emma Weishaar, the math department chairwoman at North Carroll, who is pioneering use of the calculators in Carroll. "You have to know where to put things and why."

The ease Jarrod talked about comes from a screen that shows a user a graph or several lines of an equation, instead of just one number at a time, as in standard calculators.

Mrs. Weishaar teaches classes for other Carroll County math teachers who are interested in the calculators. Westminster, Francis Scott Key and North Carroll teachers have shown the most interest, she said.

She learned from training sessions held by teachers in Baltimore County, where schools have been using the calculators for a few years.

Washington and Howard county schools also have been using them, but nationwide, graphic calculators are just catching on, Mrs. Weishaar said.

"Five years ago, these did not exist," she said. Most colleges still aren't using them, she said. She hopes that by the time students using them in high school get to college, the gadgets will be standard there, too.

Graphic calculators do on screen what students once wrote with a pencil on graph paper: the standard graph with four quadrants, and coordinates mapped out to show the relationship between two numbers.

Graphing an equation can tell a person whether the equation makes sense, Mrs. Weishaar said.

Also, a graph can give a picture to the numbers. As an example, she has students graph a problem about how much profit a business person will make based on sales and overhead.

Another example she uses when training other Carroll County math teachers is the population of wild turkeys over the years, showing how and where the population has declined.

Despite a bit of frustration at learning how to use the calculators properly, the teachers in Mrs. Weishaar's afternoon and evening classes are generally happy with them, she said.

"You can tell a person's age by the level of frustration," she said. "I have two first-year teachers, and they were way ahead of the rest of the class. They're younger, and more accustomed to computers."

The graphic calculator is, in fact, a minicomputer, Mrs. Weishaar said. It has a memory, which is doubly helpful if a student gets stuck on a problem and can't get help until the next day. A teacher will be able to turn on the little machine and see exactly where a student made a mistake.

In some cases, the calculator itself will point out a mistake.

Mrs. Weishaar said students take to the graphic calculators much faster than do teachers, herself included.

"They're used to pressing buttons and playing Nintendo," she said. "They're fast to pick it up."

Mrs. Weishaar started teaching in 1965 at Francis Scott Key.

In 1970, she left math teaching to teach homebound students until 1978, when she returned as an instructor at Carroll Community College. That return brought her face to face with scientific calculators, which weren't in use when she left Key.

Indeed, until about 15 years ago, teachers often frowned upon using any kind of calculator in math classes.

Now, calculators are considered tools that free the mind to think about the whole problem instead of the drudgery of cumbersome adding, multiplying and dividing.

Of course, the assumption is that students will already have a firm grounding in arithmetic, Mrs. Weishaar said.

But when a student is capable of figuring out more complex problems, she said, "Why should we be doing long division over three digits?"