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Top 5 Uses for a Scientific Calculator

Top 5 Uses for a Scientific Calculator

Daniel Horowitz
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While calculators have been used for many years in classrooms, scientific calculators, in particular, have rapidly changed how students learn. This device has become a staple for learning complex math and science topics, and it has a number of functions that can help you to succeed at those concepts as well.
If you plan to take a math class any time in the near future, you may be required to use a scientific calculator. Let's first take a look at what a scientific calculator is and how it works, then highlight five ways you can use one.

What is a scientific calculator?

Scientific calculators perform the same functions as their standard counterparts, but they also have myriad other features available that you may not know about. On the market today, there are three main categories of calculators: business, basic, and scientific.
It’s likely that you have already used a basic calculator in other math classes, and you may have even used a business calculator in an economics or business statistics course. The scientific calculator, however, is the only one that can handle certain functions in fields such as trigonometry, physics, chemistry, and engineering.
A scientific calculator has additional features that allow you to work with exponents and logs, which require a certain amount of memory in order to perform functions and give you the correct results.
While you can also do basic calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, that barely even scratches the surface of the types of equations this calculator can handle.

What should I look for in a scientific calculator?

If you expect to take any classes that dive into geometry, scientific notation, trigonometry, engineering, and physics, then it’s likely you will have to learn how to use a scientific calculator at some point.
You should expect the cost of your scientific calculator to be around $200 or less, which is a bit more than you would for pay for a basic or business calculator, but that’s because of the number of features that come with it.
Depending on the manufacturer, you’re likely to have different labels for your functions. For the most part, they should be able to accomplish the same tasks.
The HP10s+ scientific calculator is a great option and can handle any equations you can throw at it, and there are some other models that can work too. If you have access to your syllabus, double check to make sure that you are purchasing the recommended option.
You don’t necessarily need to have the fanciest model in order to pass your class, but there have been some new perks added to scientific calculators over the years, including WiFi and the ability to share your work with fellow classmates or your instructor.
Here are the top five uses for a scientific calculator and how you may be expected to use it in your next class.

1. Basic functions and exponents

Along with your more basic functions such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, there are others your scientific calculator can compute. You should keep in mind that the subtraction sign (-) is different from a separate negative function.
This can end up causing some confusion when you start using your calculator at first because the signs look similar. Along with negation, you can also raise numbers to another power and find a square root of a number or formula.
Exponents are used in almost any math course beyond what you learn in elementary school, but only a scientific calculator can perform any algebraic function. In addition to using your calculator to solve for a known number, you can use it for an unknown number. This is useful for algebra or any other more advanced math you may be studying.
Basic calculators are great for solving simple equations with one or two variables, but scientific calculators allow you to input a problem that has an order of operations. If you enter one of these equations into a regular calculator, it won’t be able to correctly determine which numbers should be addressed first.
However, once you enter the equation into a scientific calculator, it should provide you with the correct answer. This is because parentheses are included as an option, allowing you to solve more complex problems. This tells the calculator to perform that operation first, much like if you were doing it on paper.
It’s also possible to use a scientific calculator to find the square root of a number, and this is one of the simplest operations you can perform. Enter in your chosen number, hit the SQRT key, and your answer will appear. Much of finding the answers to equations on your calculator require just using one or two keys, which can make solving difficult problems quicker and easier.
Almost anyone can benefit from using a scientific calculator at this point. And while most instructors now encourage calculator use in their classrooms, it’s worth asking first if this type of device is allowed.

2. Logarithms

Once you have increased your knowledge and you’re learning new concepts related to calculus and trigonometry, it’s likely that you will have to learn about logarithms. These formulas help you to calculate speed, area, and much more. In the past, these were done almost completely by hand. Now it takes only a moment to input the proper information and solve the problem using a calculator.
Logarithms are mostly used by those involved in the medical and engineering fields, but other careers may encounter them at some point. They can be tricky to solve by hand, but with the help of a scientific calculator, the process can be much easier.
Your device will probably solve for the natural logarithm of an equation in most classes. Some teachers may only explain logarithms through the use of a scientific calculator because all it requires is knowing how to enter the correct formula.
Another reason that you may want to consider using a scientific calculator for logarithms is that they also have a built-in memory, which allows you to store certain equations.
If you are working on something that requires several sessions, you can tell your calculator to store what you have already input into the device. This makes it easy to return if you need to take a break or if you want to try another combination.

3. Sine, cosine, and tangent functions

For those taking a trigonometry or calculus course, sine functions are a given. They also often pop up if your career path involves any sort of engineering or architectural field. A sine function is used to find the measurement of a certain angle, especially when other sides or angles are unknown. You may also encounter the inverse sine, which is often used to find the hypotenuse of a triangle.
Like logarithms, this calculation once took a while to solve as you went through one piece of paper after the next. With scientific calculators, you can get the answer almost immediately once you have properly entered the function.
Another related calculation you may have to perform is the graphing of a sine. This is a direct way to show your work and many classes now require that you know how to graph various functions.
Similarly, you can also graph and solve for cosine functions. The cosine of an angle is the measurement of the length of a triangle, and it is most often used in trigonometry courses. You’ll most likely use cosines to find the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle, and a scientific calculator also operates in the reverse with inverse cosines.
Cosines can be found for any angle, even if they are large or negative. Again, you may be required to show that you know what cosines are by using your calculator to create a graph.
Tangents are another concept you will have to learn in a trigonometry class, and this too involves finding unknown quantities. In geometry, you’ll most likely encounter tangents when calculating perpendicular lines.
In trigonometry, you’ll use it to find the value of an opposite side of the given values. You can also choose to receive your answer in either degrees or radians depending on what your instructor requires.
Again, a scientific calculator is the only kind of calculator that can find the answer these types of equations, and it’s likely that at some point you will need them in your schooling. This can be especially true if your instructor requires that you show you know how to graph certain functions, which may be part of your final grade.
Pro tip: Make sure that your calculator isn’t in radian mode if you want your answers in degrees, because this can throw off your equation and give you an entirely different answer than the one you are looking for.

4. Scientific notation

A scientific calculator isn’t just used for more complicated math problems. In fact, one of its best uses may be that it can calculate scientific notation. For numbers that can’t be written in decimal point form because they are too large, a normal calculator won’t be able to cover it.
You’ll most likely use scientific notation if you plan to work in a field related to science, engineering, and mathematics, and you will definitely need a more complex calculator to handle your homework.
If you’re wondering how to do scientific notation on a calculator, it’s not that complicated. In order to perform the operation:
  • Locate the 10^x on your device
  • Enter in your x value
  • Press the “Enter” button in order to receive the answer
Unlike basic calculators that can only handle smaller values, a scientific calculator can handle numbers on a much vaster scale, which can be useful when it comes to collecting data or working as a physicist. It can also calculate negative scientific notation.
For those looking to enter engineering, there is a special mode that can help you calculate equations specific to your field. You’ll find it as the ENG display mode on your device, and it’s designed to help communicate numbers orally and through reading.

5. Binary functions

Similar to how you would enter equations into your calculator to compute notations or logs, tangents, and sines, a scientific calculator can solve for binary functions. These equations require two inputs. You’ll most likely encounter this in algebra or calculus when you are solving for an unknown, but you may also discuss it when learning about the Cartesian product and subsets.
This is another type of equation that is difficult to track without having a calculator that has memory, because if you can store the results the calculator gives you, you can build off the work that you have accomplished before or save your efforts for another time.

In summary

Previously, entire classes were devoted to learning how to compute certain equations, and students may not have been expected to actually learn what those equations were for and how they would use them in future careers.
Thanks to the scientific calculator, it’s become easier to perform a variety of functions and see how they are likely to impact a career in the sciences or mathematics.
About the Author: Daniel Horowitz is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Daniel is a New York-based author and has written for publications such as USA Today, Digital Trends, Unwinnable Magazine, and many other media outlets.

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