Beyond Graphing: Teach Students Programming with Calculators

[Editorial] Beyond Graphing: TI Calculators Teach Students Valuable Computer Programming Skills

If you've spent any amount of time here at Cemetech, you've probably heard me on my soapbox for the importance of introducing students to coding, programming, and electronics as early as possible. Among the general public, the growing interest in learning to code has been particularly focused on job and career opportunities. It is easy to understand why: the number of jobs for programmers and computer scientists is rapidly increasing, with demand far outpacing supply.

But there are broader reasons for learning to code. By learning to code, people learn many other valuable life skills. In addition to learning mathematical and computational ideas, they also learn strategies for logical reasoning, solving problems and sharing ideas. I know from personal experience that graphing calculators, especially TI calculators, are a powerful tool to expose students to the exciting world of computer programming. From the moment you turn on a graphing calculator, students have all the tools at their fingertips to learn, write, test and debug programs. Not to mention, they can share their masterpieces with their friends to spark rich discussion about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Most frequently, we introduce students to programming with the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition or TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition graphing calculators, and it's also possible to learn with the TI-Nspire CX. Here's why TI graphing calculators are a valuable teaching tool for introducing students to the basics of programming:
• Learning TI-BASIC (BASIC language built into TI calculators) and Lua teaches students to think like a programmer and allows them to translate ideas into structure and code, a skill vital to learning future languages.
• A graphing calculator is a self-contained programming platform: and students already are familiar with it; there's nothing to download or install and nothing extra to buy.
• Calculators are portable; students can use their calculators on the bus, at lunch, or at home.
• TI-BASIC, and to a lesser extent Lua, can be modified directly on graphing calculators, so students can experiment with existing programs and tweak them to understand how they work and program without needing a computer.
• Students can use TI-BASIC and Lua to write math and science-related programs, cementing their knowledge of the subjects or exercise their creativity to stretch the devices' capabilities to create fast, fun games or other types of programs.
• Because most students have the same calculator, students can easily transfer their projects to their friends' calculators to show off their hard work!
• There is a thriving online community of programmers willing to help enthusiastic students (and their teachers and parents) with programming, and give them a venue to share their creations with a larger audience.
Of course, there are also smaller groups of programmers who favor calculators like the HP Prime and the Casio Prizm that offer HP BASIC, Casio BASIC, and C.

Every Cemetech staff member now knows many programming languages, as most of us are professional computer scientists or electrical engineers or are in graduate school. Without graphing calculators, though, most of us would not have been exposed to programming as an exciting learning platform, hobby or career path. Almost invariably, my colleagues tell me their careers and interests were born on a TI graphing calculator in a high school classroom. The story is often that experimenting with programming commands or exploring existing programs on a graphing calculator sparked a general curiosity in programming. As students, they challenged themselves to create bigger and more elaborate programs, then discovered the larger online graphing calculator programming community and learned even more while showing off their projects. In a recent Cemetech topic, scores of current calculator programmers and students told the same tale.

We will be demonstrating TI and other graphing calculators as a programming platform at World Maker Faire 2014 in New York City on September 20 and 21. I am excited to once again expose thousands of kids and adults to the value of learning to program on a graphing calculator. I strongly encourage you to stop by and post your tale or questions here if you have any experiences of your own with programming calculators or are curious to learn more.

Let's get more kids coding!

Resources
Programming the TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus: Learn TI-BASIC for the TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus/TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition.
Using the TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus: Learn to use your TI-83+/TI-84+/TI-84+CSE for math and science.
Cemetech Forum: A resource for asking programming questions, sharing projects, and more.
SourceCoder 3: Work on TI-BASIC programming projects online, import existing programs, and export programs for your calculator.
jsTIfied Calculator Emulator: Emulate a graphing calculator in your browser (requires a legal ROM image from your physical calculator).