Calculator Options

Updated: 16 August 2015

Both PHY2048 and PHY2049 operate under a policy similar to that used by the national organization that administers most of the licensing exams for engineers, a policy that bans the TI 83 and all other calculators with similar alphanumeric storage and/or communication capabilities.

Calculators allowed by the NCEES include the TI 30X IIS, TI 36X Pro, HP 33s, HP 35s, Casio fx-115 MS, Casio fx-115 ES, and other variants of the 30X, 36X, and fx-115 series. I allow some models that the NCEES does not permit, such as the Sharp EL-531 series (which is pretty much equivalent to the TI 30X IIS or TI 36X) and the Casio fx-300 series. (See below for my comments on their features and the price you might expect to pay.)

Although it is legal, I strongly urge you to avoid low-end calculators (such as the TI 30Xa) that no self-respecting engineer or computer scientist would touch, let alone own. Slide rules and similar analog computational devices (such as an abacus) are also permitted but not used by any professional except to show off. Don't even think about asking to use a graphing calculator, cell phone, PDA, or electronic dictionary. Cell phones should be off and must be put away, along with any earpieces or earphones, during any exam. Answering a phone or using any other forbidden device during an exam will result in your exam being picked up.

You can read the NCEES Calculator policy, which applies to the "Fundamentals of Engineering" exam taken as the first step to becoming a licensed engineer in most fields and most states. They provide a list of the specific calculators they allow in the examination room. At one time they had a report giving some very interesting reasons for adopting their policy. My concerns do not include retrofit communication tools, although that is a concern, but focus on the impracticality of resetting every calculator in a large class within the limited time available before the exam begins. Besides, every problem is designed to be done with a calculator that cannot do symbolic algebra or calculus.

A side comment: If I did require the TI-83, my operating assumption when writing exams would be that you know how to use all of its features. Thus there would be few points awarded for using the correct equation for a problem, and no credit given for any mistakes made when solving those equations. For example, I would expect you to be able to solve a system of equations using the matrix manipulation tools of the TI-83 on exams. Partial credit would only be given on problems that use algebra in a "calculator free" environment.

You are allowed to use the TI-83 in the lab, but the reset policy (see below) applies to its use on lab exams. Any other alphanumeric calculator is forbidden on lab exams because I do not know the details of its functionality, or because I do. You cannot use the "Silver Edition" of the TI-83 or the new TI-84 on lab exams. If you normally use one of those, bring your "physics" calculator on exam days.

A cell phone is not a calculator, it (along with PDAs, electronic dictionaries, iPods, MP3 or MP4 players, computers, and sophisticated calculators) is an illegal electronic device whose use during an exam will be considered cheating. I define "use" to include having a wired or wireless (e.g. Bluetooth) earpiece or watch in place during the exam.

If you are "on call", you can leave your phone on my desk during the test. Otherwise, put it in "airplane" mode or turn it off and put it away. If you answer your cell phone, I will pick up your test. If it rings, let it ring. If I see an earpiece in place, I will pick up your test. Put it away. Consider yourself warned.

You may not share calculators during a test, so come prepared.
If necessary, you can buy a calculator at the TCC Bookstore for around $15.

I only want to see naked calculators on your desk during exams.
Remove the cover from your calculator and leave it in your backpack.

You should never come to class without your scientific calculator, so it is important to own one that is easily carried every day in your book bag and use it for all of your physics homework and studying. You should use the same calculator for homework that you will use on exams so that you are very familiar with all of its features. It is a poor carpenter who uses a nail gun to prepare for a job where only a hammer will be allowed.

Legal Calculators:
You can use a scientific calculator that does not have the ability to store alphanumeric data or communicate with other electronic devices (by any means). Your calculator needs to be able to handle scientific notation and evaluate trig, inverse trig, log, and exponential functions. Some popular choices include the TI 30X IIS, Casio fx-115 (either MS or ES), TI 36 Pro, TI 34 II (not approved for the FE exam), Sharp EL-531VB (also not approved for the FE exam), and the HP 35s. Details are at the bottom of this page.

These calculators also have the advantage of being cheap (all are less than $20), giving you a reliable backup for your TI-83 in other classes. For example, some of these will do numerical integrals like the TI-83. Better yet, they generally have a clear display of what mode (degrees or radians) they are in so you will not make that sort of units mistake on a test. You can leave your "math" calculator in radians and your "physics" calculator in degrees.

The standard calculator at TCC is illegal:
TCC math classes, starting with college algebra and continuing through calculus, allow (or even require) the TI 83Plus or above, and generally allow the almost-equivalent TI 83. Some even tolerate the TI 84 or TI 85. You may not use these calculators in PHY2048 or PHY2049. Students in the physics labs may use the standard TI-83Plus calculator, but it will be reset before exams.

A TI-83 calculator is not required for the lab and I will not teach assuming you have it. We have computer programs in the lab that fit data while providing additional information and graphs that even the fancy calculators do not provide. (The most commonly used program, Logger Pro, is also available in the Learning Commons for use outside of class.) You will not be at a disadvantage if you use a cheaper calculator in lab. You might even find it easier to use a cheaper calculator (such as the Casio fx-115 or TI 30X IIS) to find the mean and standard deviation of a data set.

Illegal calculators:
You may never use the TI 83Plus Silver Edition, TI-84 (any version), TI 85, TI 86, TI 89, or similar calculators (such as high-end ones from HP) on tests. Doing so will be considered cheating under the TCC honor code, and appropriate action (starting with holding the calculator as evidence and picking up the offender's exam) will be taken.

Check with me well BEFORE the first exam if you want to use a calculator not described here as being acceptable.

Once again, a cell phone (or a PDA such as a Palm device or electronic dictionary) is not a calculator. Such devices may not be used in any way during an exam. I don't even want to see a cell phone on your desk, and if you answer it during an exam I will pick up your exam.

Important Notes:

  1. You may not share calculators during a test, so come prepared.

  2. Use of an illegal calculator (see above) or a cell phone during a test is a violation of the TCC Honor Code. You will get a zero on that exam (if it is your first offense) unless I catch it early and indicate on the exam which parts of it might have made use of any data stored in the device so I can grade them accordingly.

  3. I do not allow formula sheets and, therefore, storing formulae in or on your calculator is also a violation of the TCC Honor Code and will result in a zero on the exam whether you are observed to be using those formulae or not. My policy makes it easy for you to avoid trying to rely on methods that will only get you in trouble in the future.

  4. Remove any cover from your calculator and leave it in your backpack before a test.
    Naked calculators only, please.

  5. You should have a straightedge (ruler) for use on tests when/if drawing is required. In an emergency, you may use a second pencil for that purpose. I recommend getting a pencil case to use for carrying basic tools such as a ruler, protractor, the pen you should use in lab, spare pencil leads for a mechanical pencil, etc.

  6. If you use any function on your calculator other than the ones for simple arithmetic or evaluation of trig, log, or exponential functions, the requirement that you "show your work" means that you must specify every one of the key strokes used to do the calculation on your calculator so that I can see if I get the same result on mine. This mainly applies to the use of a TI-83 in the lab.


Good Calculator Choices

The following is a partial list of scientific calculators that are legal to use, along with my opinions about them. Almost all of these are "solar" with battery backup, a big plus when your career depends on it working. I no longer try to keep up with prices, but I've seen the TI-30X IIS advertised as low as $9.99 or $8.88 during back to school sales in the fall with the Casio running a few dollars more. The Casio is rarely on sale.

In general, it appears that other 2-line calculators that have trig functions available as primary functions on the keypad are all adequate for essentially everything that we do.

Note: Be sure you know how your calculator handles a unary minus (negative sign) in conjunction with the x2 operation. You might be surprised at the result; some out there will give an algebraically incorrect answer. [The correct answer to -32 is -9.]

Questionable Calculator Choices

Ask first, buy later.

A waste of a lot of money:
The TI-89 is advertised as being for "university" and "calculus" classes. That may be true, but that does not mean you can use it in my class and you may not be able to use it in your calculus class except on an exam where a laptop or desktop computer running MAPLE is also allowed. Using it under any other circumstances places you at risk for getting caught violating the TCC Honor Code. Similar comments apply to advertising claims made for other high-end calculators.

A total waste of less money:
My experience with students trying to use the TI 30Xa indicates that it, and any calculators that implement parentheses in the same way it does, should be avoided at any cost. (Fortunately, the cost of avoiding it is only a few dollars.) Students have trouble verifying complex calculations when the sub-expressions are evaluated as soon as the parentheses are closed, which is the way most of the 1-line calculators work.

My judgement on the Casio fx250 is based on the package info; if you know otherwise, please tell me and I will correct my list.


 ?? Contact me if you have any questions.

My TCC home page.