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Ti-Nspire inspires Math students

A while ago I received an email out of the blue from Texas Instruments (TI). One of their marketing people discovered this blog and offered to send me a TI-Nspire calculator to review. I quickly accepted, after all, who would turn down a free fancy calculator, right? Once I received the calculator I realized that this was no ordinary calculator; it was a visual Math learning system. I did nothing with it for a couple of months until I finally realized that I was not the best person to review it as it would take me quite a bit of time and effort to learn and appreciate its power. Sure, I could read the manual and run some demos but I didn't think that would give me enough experience to write a very in-depth review.

In discussing my challenge with TI, I learned of some teachers who were successfully using the TI-Nspire in the classroom. One person in particular, Eric Butterbaugh, was teaching Math in Harlem, New York. It occurred to us in that conversation that readers of this blog would appreciate hearing about Mr. Butterbaugh's success with the Ti-Nspire system. I created some interview questions and received back the interview you're about to read.

I think you'll appreciate the application of this portable hand-held technology to help motivate students. And, hopefully, you'll appreciate the contributions of this Math teacher to make a difference in the lives of his students by inspiring them to learn.


Eric Butterbaugh is an Algebra and Geometry instructor at Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School in Harlem New York. As one of five national TI-Nspire pilot site instructors, Mr. Butterbaugh has embraced the new technology and uses TI-Nspire to inspire success in his Harlem classroom. He says that the most exciting part of his experience with the TI-Nspire technology is that it has redefined his ideas about the types of concepts that can be enhanced through inquiry-based instruction.

1. What kinds of activities do you do with the TI-Nspire with your students?

Many TI-Nspire activities I do with my students are inquiry-based. These activities generally involve a pre-constructed file which is loaded onto each handheld at the beginning of class. Working in groups, students observe patterns, make conjectures, and apply these conjectures to various problem-solving situations. My students generally do one inquiry-based activity per unit, however, we refer to these patterns and conjectures throughout the course of the unit.

2. How has the TI-Nspire gotten the students more interested in learning Math?

With the TI-Nspire, my students are more interested in learning math because it becomes a much more active process. Instead of learning discrete computational skills and procedures, students grapple with, and ultimately discover, larger concepts and processes. Students enjoy working in groups, and it gives them the opportunity to compare their ideas. Students ask more – and better – questions, and they actively seek counterexamples to their conjectures. I love it when students try to “mess up” a construction I give them by transforming it, because it means they are trying to see whether or not their conjectures are always true. This allows students to become much more self-sufficient learners.

3. Can you provide examples of some Math concepts that are easier to teach because you have the TI-Nspire?

I teach Algebra I, and many of the big Algebra I concepts – equations and functions, rate of change, proportionality, and coordinate geometry – really come alive with the TI-Nspire. Students can see multiple representations of a concept on the same screen, and, as a result, I see a wider range of problem-solving methods. I’ve also found that the TI-Nspire CAS makes some of the more “algebraic” concepts more accessible to students. For instance, many students initially struggle to simplify algebraic expressions using the laws of exponents. The TI-Nspire CAS allows students to discover these laws through pattern recognition. Students are much more likely to remember and apply these laws if they have discovered them themselves.

4. How much have Math test scores increased due to using the TI-Nspire?

Students recently used the TI-Nspire to determine the procedure for calculating the area of a parallelogram. Using a preconstructed file with dynamic area calculations, students explored the relationship between the area of a rectangle and the area of a parallelogram. Through a series of observations and conjectures, students determined on their own how to calculate the area of a parallelogram. Two weeks after the lesson, I assessed their understanding with two standardized test items. According to assessment data, 18% and 40% of students, respectively, answered these two items correctly. After using the TI-Nspire, 68% and 82% of my students, respectively, answered correctly. This evidence certainly suggests that the TI-Nspire promotes sustained understanding.

5. Can you share an “AH HA!” moment that one of your students had when a concept became clear due to using the TI-Nspire?

With the TI-Nspire, “AH HA” moments happen quicker and with much greater frequency. One recent “AH HA” moment involved rewriting equivalent expressions. Many students initially struggle with basic numeric and algebraic concepts, so I was not surprised when students didn’t understand that the product of a fraction and its denominator is its numerator. For instance, one half times two equals one, two-thirds times three equals two, etc. To clarify this concept, we did a brief, two minute investigation as a class. The TI-Nspire’s “true type” display showed the expressions as they appeared in the text book, and students quickly understood a concept they should have already understood. In the past, a misconception like this would have made it difficult to continue. With the TI-Nspire, I am better able to address common misconceptions and continue with the lesson.

6. What do you like most about the TI-Nspire?

I love the TI-Nspire’s document-based platform. This gives me the opportunity to design an activity, create an electronic file for the TI-Nspire, and load it onto students’ handhelds. This allows us to bypass potentially time-consuming constructions as a class, which results in more efficient instruction. These TI-Nspire files are easy to preserve and modify for future use. They are also extremely easy to share with other teachers. Many TI-Nspire activities are already posted on TI’s online Activities Exchange. As more and more educators continue to start using the TI-Nspire, it’s encouraging to see that more activities are being posted.

7. What do you like least about the TI-Nspire?

Some students – and even some educators – get intimidated when they see the keypad. The irony is that the buttons that are potentially intimidating tend to be the most user-friendly. In fact, aside from the basic numeric keys, most of the TI-Nspire’s functionality is controlled by only five buttons. It’s very similar to a computer. Even though there are a lot of buttons on the keyboard, almost everything is controlled with the mouse.

8. How long does it take a typical student to get comfortable with the TI-Nspire?

Based on my experience, students typically get comfortable with the TI-Nspire after about six weeks of use. The TI-Nspire is menu-driven, so students navigate through a series of drop-down menus, much like a computer. As a result, students learn functional technology skills in addition to mathematical concepts.

9. What could TI do to improve on the TI-Nspire?

There’s a wide variety of professional development opportunities over the upcoming months. Summer workshops, local user-group meetings, and regional conferences are great ways to get introduced to the TI-Nspire. To be honest, I’d like to see more CAS professional development opportunities. CAS is the most overlooked tool in algebra because it is prohibited on most standardized exams, but it’s been an extremely valuable inquiry-based tool in my own classroom.** When used properly, CAS can turn the most “algebraic” concepts into engaging, meaningful learning opportunities.

** TI asked me to clarify this point by noting that CAS is allowed on the following exams: SAT, Praxis, PSTAT/NMSQAT, AP Calculus, AP Statistics, AP Chemistry and AP Physics exams. -Sol

Comments (3) Trackbacks (1)
  1. This is a pretty useful article, I was just talking to a friend a few days ago about what calculator would be appropriate for a project we about to engage. That name came up, and it is good to find such a review before purchasing.

  2. Very interesting article.
    I just started my engineering course in the University of Bologna (Italy) and i was looking for a calculator to help in my studies.
    Frankly speaking here nobody use a graphic calculator, maximum that chinese 10 euros scientific calculators. I think it is because the teachers here are quite “old” (they give lessons since 25 or 30 years) and they don’t follow too much the hi-tech world.
    Some weeks ago something happen with our algebra teacher and they substitute him with a ladie from spain. This ladie is quite young and it seems to me that she speaks our “language” with clear explanations during the lessons (after all she uses a notebook and she has a website were we can download the exercises!).
    She reccomend us to look for a graphic calculator in order to understand better the concepts of the books.
    i found many interesting “machines” like Casio, and HP models, but indeed the TI-nspire CAS system seems to me very much powerfull with the software and i also could see that there is also books with exercises using the CAS system that you can buy(wondering if they exist in italian…). I just bought the TI-nspire Cas with touchpad from internet and i must to confess that i’m ‘sleepless’ waiting it to arrive! i hope my class collegues like it because it should be easier to ‘discover’ new things when other people have the same calculator.

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