IT IS the biggest thing to hit mathematics education since the hand-held calculator.
It's called the graphic calculator. Like the instrument it supplanted about 1989, it's a small, portable device slightly larger than a person's hand.
But unlike the earlier version, this one has a screen for the display of graphs and other computations.
Teachers love it, though some have had to abandon deeply embedded paper-and-pencil proclivities. Students, raised on the technology, easily adapt to the graphic computer. (After all, it's like a TV, and if you're smart enough, you can play war and space games on it.)
Part of the Scholastic Assessment Test in mathematics is done on the instrument. And Texas Instruments, which has grown to dominate the market, is selling graphic calculators like August crabs in Baltimore.
"All of our journals say this is the way to go," said Virginia Williams, field services coordinator for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "What the graphic calculator does is make understandable what generations of kids have considered abstract."
Across the nation, the graphic calculator is showing up in algebra and calculus classes -- in the cities, where students use the devices in school but can't take them home, and in the suburbs, where increasing numbers own their own calculators, which cost about $80. They are now required in calculus classes in many jurisdictions.
Janie Zimmer, mathematics curriculum coordinator in Howard County, said the graphic calculator is causing a "revolution in the teaching of mathematics. It's allowing kids to apply mathematics to real-life problems. They have to know what they're doing to use it, but once they do, they can do things we could never have done at their age without spending hours at it."
Yesterday, students in Rachel E. Turner's 11th-grade algebra class at Baltimore School for the Arts were using a classroom set of graphic calculators to create graphs representing the distribution of grades on a class test. The students simply punch the data in; the calculator does previously time-consuming work of creating the graph.
Such graphs help students understand statistics and algebraic equations, and they help them estimate what will happen if they change data -- or if they observe data over time.
Ms. Turner's calculator was hooked to an overhead projector so that students could build their graphs along with their teacher.
"It's really easy to use," said Stephanie Maher, 16, a dance major, "and it's easy to learn to use. You can also write a secret message the teacher doesn't know about."
Students' fascination -- and facility -- with modern technology is encouraged by the wise educators, Ms. Turner said. "These kids are so much more advanced than we were with technology," she said. "The challenge for us is to get teachers to adapt. It's not a problem with the kids."
The graphic calculator has become so popular so quickly, according to Howard County's Ms. Zimmer, that it has caught higher education off guard.
"One of the problems we've been having," she said, "is that some of the colleges have been very cautious in moving the way we've been teaching mathematics."
In sum, the graphic calculator is helping students educate their elders -- the child being father of the man.
What's next? The graphic calculator is a minicomputer that already can "talk" to regular personal computers.
The next generation of calculators will be fully integrated with schools' computer systems and capable of doing more than they can now, Ms. Zimmer said.
"But some people don't realize that the computer doesn't think. Only the student can think."
Early childhood education now a $5 billion business
What's the growth industry in education? Early childhood.
Schools and school districts are moving their programs to earlier and earlier ages; a $5 billion business that once was a cottage industry now is engaged in everything from publishing the monthly Baltimore's Child to running child care centers in Montgomery County shopping malls.
"I think we're also seeing a return to research in early childhood issues," said Diane Rosenberg, lower school principal at Park School, which is sponsoring a conference today on early childhood education. Topics on attendees' minds include "Helping Children Cope With Stress," "Guiding Parents Through the Admissions Process" and "Teaching Writing to Young Children."
Why the interest? "The driving force is the need for child care as more and more women go to work," said Rolf Grafwallner, section chief for early learning at the state Department of Education.