What is a Scientific Calculator?

Ken Black

A scientific calculator is a calculator especially designed to deal with scientific problems. These calculators can range from a few U.S. Dollars to several hundred, depending on the quality and features the model has to offer. They are also very useful for advanced mathematics, in addition to scientific features.

A scientific calculator is able to do more advanced math and science problems than a basic calculator.
A scientific calculator is able to do more advanced math and science problems than a basic calculator.

One of the hallmarks of modern scientific calculators is their ability to be programmed with formulas and functions that may be needed for certain classes. These functions are often capable of handling very complex scientific formulas, such as those found in physics or chemistry, and those in advanced mathematics, such as trigonometry. This is a feature that is available on most advanced calculators, whether they are graphing, statistics or scientific. Most companies offer a way to connect the calculator to a computer for uploading these important functions.

Many handheld calculators are equipped with tools for trigonometric functions.
Many handheld calculators are equipped with tools for trigonometric functions.

There are entire Web sites devoted to programming calculators with different functions. In many cases, those using a scientific calculator may be able to upload formulas to a Web site so that others can share it. Some calculators have the ability to transfer data from directly from one calculator to another, either through a wired connection or wireless connection. These features depend on the calculator model, with the costlier models having the most desirable features.

Some educators feel the features available on any calculator can actually be confusing in and of themselves. In fact, many educators feel students should have a scientific calculator that does the functions needed, but not so many that it becomes a distraction. In many cases, a teacher will recommend a certain calculator for students. It is in the student's best interest to purchase the model recommended, as often the teacher will demonstrate its use in class. Other models may work slightly differently, putting the student at somewhat of a disadvantage.

In some ways, a scientific calculator has the ability to act as a financial calculator. It may be able to amortize a loan or even calculate the value of certain investments. These features may be factory installed or available as add-ons. However, this is not the main function of scientific calculator.

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Discussion Comments


I really like that Windows 7 included a scientific calculator with it. I don't do a lot of calculations, but every now and then I need to figure up something that involves a power or fraction. Those are things that you can't do with a regular calculator. Before if I needed to use a scientific calculator, I had to do an internet search and find a free scientific calculator offered on a website somewhere.

Outside of the normal functions, I didn't realize that they were making calculators with so many different uses. When I was in school, no one used calculators. We were just expected to learn our multiplication tables and use a lot of scratch paper. I heard somewhere the other day that some schools aren't even requiring kids to learn how to multiply by hand, because calculators are so ubiquitous now.


@stl156 - Like @matthewc23 said, you can choose between both types of calculators. I wouldn't ever be pressured into buying a graphic calculator, though, unless your son plans on taking classes in calculus or higher. I got my first graphing calculator when I was a freshman in high school in 2002. Although it helps out a lot, and can make certain problems easier, you can still do all the same functions on a basic scientific calculator.

Along the same lines, while the technology of graphing calculators is advancing, most people, especially high schoolers, will never use one of these calculators to its full potential. I took two calculus courses in college and still could have gotten by with only a scientific calculator if I absolutely had to.

To be honest, my experience has shown that the only real benefit that people get from the newer calculators is more games to play during class, which are obviously unnecessary.


@stl156 - I think any class where algebra is being taught will require a scientific calculator. These types of calculators can perform calculations with fractions, powers, and trigonometric functions that aren't available on regular calculators.

You really have two options when picking a calculator. There are the basic scientific calculators, but there is also something called a graphing calculator. Graphing calculators can be distinguished, because they will have a larger, multi-line screen and more buttons. As the name implies, they can be used to graph different types of lines.

Although, your son wouldn't need it for beginning algebra, a calculator like this might come in handy later on down the line. On the other hand, these calculators evolve pretty quickly, so it could also be good to just wait until it's needed. I would just base your decision on your budget.

My son will be starting junior high next year. I am curious whether or not he will need a scientific calculator at that point. His birthday is close to the beginning of the school year, so I thought about that being something I could get him assuming he will need it.

I think he will be taking a class called pre-algebra if that helps at all. I don't really have any idea what they will be teaching in there, though. When you do go to buy a scientific calculator, what types of things should you be looking for? There is a store near us that sells Casio scientific calculators. Are they a good brand, or are there better options?

Whenever I was in school I don't remember ever needing a scientific calculator. At that point, calculators in general were still relatively new though...

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