Education Technology

Learn to Code with Your TI Graphing Calculator

Posted 02/22/2018 by Kimberly Gonzales (@kimsgonzales)

I always looked forward to math class when I was in high school.  I noticed that some of the other students had programmed their calculators to do fun things like display messages to friends, develop games or just for some extra help on their math homework.  I knew I wanted to learn to code on my graphing calculator so that I could do the same.  What I didn’t know was that learning to code on my TI graphing calculator would lead me to a degree in computer science and engineering from MIT. With so few students – especially ladies like myself – pursuing computer science degrees, I wanted to share a few secrets from an insider that might help inspire your students to embrace computer science! 

Learn the Basics with TI-Basic

Any TI graphing calculator can be programmed using a language called TI-Basic.  For the TI-84 Plus family and TI-Nspire CX, TI provides free lessons that teach you how to code on your calculator. These lessons walk you through the programming editor on the calculator. Once you’ve nailed down the basics, we can help you move into the fundamentals that make up most programming languages. I’m talking about things like variables, conditional statements ( If/Then), Loops (For, While), you know, the fun stuff! This really is my favorite part about programming -- the same logic usually applies across all languages. The syntax is the only thing that changes from one programming language to another, so, once you’ve mastered TI-Basic,  its’s much easier to start learning other programming languages.

Create Fun Programs, like a Coding a Calculator Pet

Now that you’ve got the basics down, try to create some fun programs. For the TI-84 Plus, TI provides some more advanced lessons for creating games, like Snake. (Side note - do you remember Snake? This millennial used to play on my old flip phone 😊).   If creating a Snake game isn’t for you, why not trying programming your calculator to become a pet? When I was a kid, I loved to play with the popular digital pets that lived on a keyring and attached to your backpack. Basically, I created a program that does the same thing for your graphing calculator and turns it into a pet. This is a good exercise that will get your students thinking through building a bigger program, which is what product managers do in the real world. A product manager has to think through all of the features of the product she is building and the varying requirements for each feature. In the case of the calculator pet, I encourage you to think through the features you want your pet to have (i.e. a name, “tricks”, the ability to talk -- the possibilities are endless). What do these features require? There are lots of things to think through with this one. Here’s a program to get you started. 

Calculator Pet Screenshot from TI-84 Plus 

Add a Microcontroller to Create Your Own Products

If coding seems like something you want to do more of, try adding a microcontroller like the TI-Innovator Hub.  Microcontrollers allow you to do more complex projects or even create your own product. The TI-Innovator Hub is a microcontroller controlled by your graphing calculator. It has a built-in RGB LED and speaker so that you can write a program to play a song, like the Star Spangled Banner, using the speaker on the Hub, and then create a corresponding patriotic light show using the LEDs.  

What’s really cool about microcontrollers is that you can add input and output devices like motors or temperature sensors to model a product or invention.  For example, you can create a model of a product that dispenses candy when it gets too hot. 

This student is creating a model of a product based on a TI activity.
This student is creating a model of a product based on a TI activity. 

Want More? Try Robotics!  

Many schools are starting competitive robotics teams.  Robotics is a fun, fast-paced way to see how math, science and programming relate to the real world. But, let’s face it, robotics can be intimidating to a lot of students. Want to dip your toe in robotics before joining your school’s team? Try programming the TI-Innovator Rover, a robotic vehicle controlled by your graphing calculator. It provides an easy-on-ramp to robotics using the TI-Basic programming language.  TI also provides free lessons to get you started: programming Rover to follow a path, avoid obstacles or even dance!  

I’m helping this student work with Rover to follow a path.
I’m helping this student work with Rover to follow a path.

Studying computer science and engineering can lead to some fun job possibilities. Not all people who study engineering go on to do a job with “engineering” in the title. There are a lot of options because coding teaches you so much about thinking through a problem and finding efficient and creative solutions. That’s why engineers can do anything. 😊 I’m living proof! Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realize I get to program robots to dance as part of my job at TI. Who would have thought?!? The girl who at one point didn’t know how to program on her calculator but now does it for a living. I hope to serve as an inspiration to other girls who might think they engineering or programming isn’t for them.