Short answer: Look here.

Details follow. . .

Five years ago a common question that I would get about this time of year was, “What computer is best for Engineering?” The question usually came from parents who intended to give a computer to their recent high-school graduate who was headed to Dordt for an engineering major. Amazingly, after five years my recommendations made back then are still up-to-date! Don’t believe me? There is a link at the end of this article so that you can see for yourself.

Now I’ll try to give a timeless answer to the similar question, “What calculator is best for Engineering?”

Really fancy “graphing” calculators are available. I have one, an HP 28S. The TI-83 and TI-89 are more popular and excellent calculators too. But the interesting thing is that you will not be allowed to use those calculators on some important tests. “What tests?” you might ask. Just the Fundamentals of Engineering and the Principles and Practice of Engineering tests, which you might need to get your professional license! Oh. . . also the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) which you might need to get into graduate school.

Dordt College has no control over the policies regarding calculators on the tests just mentioned, but we want our graduates to do well on these tests. These policies have been getting stricter as time goes by. It can be quite a distraction to have to deal with an unfamiliar non-graphing calculator while working on one of these tests if all you used in college was a graphing calculator. Therefore the Dordt College Engineering Department has adopted a new policy regarding calculators. Beginning in the fall of 2012 only calculators permitted at the NCEES engineering exams will be permitted at tests in the EGR100 (freshman) and EGR200 (sophomore) level engineering courses at Dordt College. Beginning in the fall of EGR 2013 the policy will apply to all engineering tests at Dordt College.

You might wonder if requiring these inexpensive non-graphing calculators would impair the educational experience. To the contrary. They will enhance the educational experience for at least two reasons. First, calculators that can do many fancy things also have a learning curve associated with using the advanced features to advantage. We occasionally grade papers where it is obvious that an advanced feature (for example symbolic algebra) was used by a student who really did not understand the feature or the method. Then the outcome of the calculation is unrecognized bogosity, which is of course not good for education. Second, when graphs or other advanced features are really needed, computers are a better way to do it. Learning to do these tasks on a computer is much better than doing them on a calculator with a small low-resolution screen and a unique style of programming that translates to nothing else. Learning about computer programs like Labview, Mathcad, Matlab, and Sage is much more worthwhile than learning how to use a graphing calculator.

The non-graphing calculators that the department will be requiring for tests (you can use whatever you want for homework) are not stripped-down four-function items. These calculators support all kinds of trig, exponential, logarithmic, power and root, statistical, polar, and many other functions. (Some also support complex number calculations.) They are easier to use well and rapidly than a graphing calculator. (Unless you never use the graphing features!) And, they cost much less. When the faculty discussed these matters at a department meeting prior to adopting this new policy, we unanimously agreed that these calculators are actually more appropriate to a quality education than the graphing calculators that are banned from the professional and graduate exams. There are good reasons why the national organizations ban graphing calculators.

My favorite? For what it is worth, I’m hooked on HP calculators because I used to work there. The retro-styled HP 35s is the way to go IMHO. You can get a used one in perfect condition if you look around on the Web. The engineers who use them one time on an NCEES test sometimes sell them cheap. (Ahh…, but you won’t get mine!) Don’t take my word for it though. Look around and you will find some so-so reports on that HP model. It is just not a perfect imitation of some earlier HP calculators. And it is not really worth the money either in comparison to the other calculators on the NCEES list, unless of course you prefer HP for some reason!

Here is another way to look at it. All the calculators in this list are very similar. The main features that distinguish one of these calculators from another are a multi-line display (HP has it!) and complex number support (HP has that too!). Those are features you can use in your work at Dordt and on the tests. At these low prices, why not look for both of those features in one calculator? That’s probably about one third of the calculators on the NCEES list.

If you are already familiar with a TI calculator, you might prefer a TI-36X Pro model. Check that.

There you go! Paying attention to what you need to do, rather than all the things you could do, is more important than the hardware. Oh yeh. . . I said that in so many words more than five years ago here!