Since the early 1990s, a humble little computing device has caused a quiet revolution in the way mathematics is taught in America’s high schools.

For generations, algebra students painstakingly plotted equations on graph paper, a process that often produced more eraser marks than answers. With the advent of the graphing calculator – a souped-up version of the hand-held calculator once scorned by math teachers – students are able to plot, adjust and even play with equations with relative ease.

Now a team of education researchers is taking the device to the next level. University of Florida College of Education Professor Stephen Pape and his colleagues are helping algebra teachers around the nation set up in-class wireless networks linking all their students’ calculators – a network that can turn the once-solitary process of ciphering into a social activity.

“When the teacher can see every student’s answer on the screen in real time and provide instant feedback, an algebra class becomes a true learning community,” Pape said. “If 60 percent of my class gets a particular problem wrong, we can stop what we’re doing and discuss it then and there.”

Pape is one of the lead investigators on a $3 million, four-year U.S. Department of Education study that has placed new calculator-networking technology in the classrooms of approximately 100 algebra teachers in 28 states. Pape and several faculty members from The Ohio State University (where Pape once taught) are examining the effect that technology is having on the educational outcomes of more than 10,000 students.

“The graphing calculator has changed the approach to teaching in a lot of Algebra I classrooms, but this technology takes it a step farther,” Pape said.

You won’t see it on the cover of *Wired* any time soon, but the graphing calculator really has caused the kind of revolution starry-eyed futurists used to dream about. First introduced in the mid-1980s, the device added a crude graphic display and an equation-plotting function to the standard scientific calculator. As technological advances improved their power and reduced their cost, graphing calculators began popping up in many high schools.

These days, the graphing calculator is a fully programmable handheld computer that allows students to plot equations and show their results instantly, run instructional programs designed to teach specific math skills, and even dabble in programming on their own. Teachers can free their students from hours of frustrating toil with rulers and grid paper, and spend their time teaching mathematical concepts instead. Rather than learning to plot points on coordinate axes, the students can be taught to read graphs that represent real-life phenomena. At a relatively low cost of $125 per unit, who cares if the little computer looks dorkier than a pocket protector?

Enter a device called the Navigator, newly released by calculator-maker Texas Instruments. Navigator is a wireless networking system that allows teachers to see what each student is doing on his or her graphing calculator in real time – and display those results on an overhead projector. The system also allows students to wirelessly download quizzes and other activities.

“The teacher, and the whole class, can see a graph of the students’ responses to a question posed in class. This provides the teacher with far greater knowledge of the classes understanding of a concept – and the teacher can show every student’s answer plotted out on the same screen,” said Pape. “Only the teacher knows who is getting the answers right and who is getting them wrong.”

The system allows a teacher to instantly know when a significant number of students have gotten and answer wrong – and it allows students to see that they are not alone in making mistakes in math.

The project is only halfway through it four-year run, though Pape says initial results suggest the networked calculators are indeed improving performance in many classrooms. Interviews with students show that the project is changing the attitudes some children have toward math class.

“They’re more engaged, because their answers will be on the board instantly,” he said. “Even though they can make mistakes anonymously, they still feel pressure to get it right.”

Pape said he couldn’t predict whether school systems would elect to buy the networking technology, which cost the researchers approximately $1,800 per classroom, with a discount from the manufacturer. The list price for Navigator is about twice that.

Even so, Pape says this sort of networking holds great promise for the classroom, and not merely in math classes.

“English teachers and history teachers who are now exploring ways to use this system in their classrooms,” he said. “This really is a powerful technology.”