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Some students in precalculus and calculus courses may find a graphing calculator handy--for example, when doing homework--but usually that's just a matter of personal taste. Official calculator policies vary from class to class. Many math classes will not have a calculator as a course requirement; some instructors might not allow calculators at all for exams and quizzes, or the calculators they allow might only be simple (and cheap) scientific calculators that let you find decimal approximations for expressions like sin(1.2) or log(.73). On the other hand, a calculator is sometimes essential (particularly in certain statistics courses).
Statistics courses taught by the mathematics department (such as Math 2200 or Math 3200) usually require a calculator with certain built-in statistical functions (these are not always included on some calculator models, even the rather expensive ones).
Therefore: as far as math courses are concerned, you should probably wait until classes start to find out what calculator, if any, is needed or allowed in the course you'll be taking.
A word of caution: do not become overly dependent on your calculator. A calculator can be a very useful tool to simplify long and tedious arithmetic calculations, but you should be able to do the basic computations and manipulations required in most math courses with just pencil and paper.
Example: you are too dependent on your calculator if
- You use a calculator when you need to know sin (pi/6) or tan(pi/3) or ln ( e ^ ( -3.9) ).
- You consistently use a calculator to get answers in calculations such as 4/7 + 3/8, which can be easily done by hand. Finding (approximate) decimal answers instead of exact fractions in simple problems generally means that a student uses the calculator too much.
- You don't know the general features and shape of simple graphs like y = (x-1)^2, y = cos(2x) + 1, or y = 2^(-x) without having your calculator graph them.
- You find yourself immediately punching buttons on the calculator as soon as you get started on a test. Few, if any, problems on most math exams (other than statistics) are designed to require a calculator.
If you already have a calculator, it's probably not a bad idea to make sure you have access to the manual (hard copy or online) just in case.