How to Choose an Engineering Calculator
Engineers need different calculators for different tasks. As you evolve in your engineering career, you may find older calculators no longer suit your needs. Use my guide to understand the three phases of upgrading your calculator throughout your career. I also offer helpful tips for using and purchasing specific brands below.
Phase One: High School Engineering Classes
In high school and college, the emphasis for most is on appearance. A bigger calculator means a bigger brain, right? The biggest geek requires the most functions on their electronic gadgets in order to translate giant thoughts into something numeric the art world can gaze upon.
Phase Two: Passing the EIT and PE Exams
Engineers need to pass the EIT (Engineer in Training) and the PE (Professional Engineer) exam. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) maintains tight rules for conducting the Fundamentals of Engineering, PE, and other exams. To combat those sneaky fellows working for exam prep services, NCEES bars calculators that can record information from the exam onto the device. For this reason, engineers must train and practice with a more limited calculator.
Phase Three: The Working Engineer
Engineers begin working for pay after passing a few of the aforementioned tests. In this phase, appearances ("my calculator is bigger than yours") fail to boost geeks to the head of the nerd herd. Instead, it is performance and output that count.
Preparing for the PE exam taught them: Even a little calculator gets the job done. So, the calculator as big as a woman's wallet takes semi-retirement in the corner of the desk (where non-engineers can admire it—keep it dusted). The new prestigious look for working engineers shifts to more and bigger books. Instead of the latest calculator, it's about who has the latest code book edition. A good example is the Civil Engineering Reference Manual. It weighs 5 pounds.
Phase One: Best Calculator for High School Engineering Students
In high school, appearance reigns supreme. In the geek squad, these honors can be purchased in the form of technology. Most Honors Calculus II students will have the latest and greatest Texas Instruments Calculator, a TI-92. Rumors this wonder machine has its own satellite are highly exaggerated. Others will purchase the HP 48G or the newest unit, the HP 50G.
However, a TI-89 also has prestige. It just has to graph. Oh, and the student owner must be able to graph in front of others. For more campus nerd stardom, download cool programs, then link up with infrared to upload them to your buddies. Be sure this is done in a public place. Don't bother with impressing cheerleaders. They still think muscles mean a better future and cheering will earn them respect with college admissions.
Phase Two: Best Calculators for the FE Exam and the PE Exam
The NCEES prepares and administers the Fundamentals of Engineering (now administered by contract by Pearson VUE) and the PE exam. Preparing and vetting questions to standardize the exam versions requires many man-hours. When questions are "stolen" by copying during an exam, the NCEES loses both money in reproducing fair exams and credibility as a testing agency.
So, we all have to suffer for the cheating-hearts of those who don't want to study an hour each night for many months. Real engineers do that anyway, right? Right?
Test Policies of the NCEES
Be sure to visit the NCEES site and review its policy. It changes. I took the PE in 2011. The exam was proctored by a retirees association. At the last minute, when it's time to just mark any unanswered questions, the old lady over my shoulder began to shake unnervingly. She was waving her arm around and looking toward the moderator in the front of the room. I thought it was bizarre of her to do that.
I innocently brought my preferred calculator, which met all the physical requirements for calculators under their policy: no qwerty keyboard, no recording capacity, etc. However, it was not specifically pre-approved by them. It had no gold star by its name. It was not on the list!
When they asked who did not have one on their list, which they read aloud, I raised my hand. Believe it or not, they actually had a conversation about whether or not they should kick me out of the exam. Instead, they had a magic box where you put your contraband calculator—a "forgiveness" box. Just put your rule-violating equipment into the box, and your dishonor can be overlooked. I put my name on it and placed it in the box on top of a stack of cell phones. The lady explained to me, "We are not responsible if it is stolen. You are responsible to retrieve it yourself after the exam," and blah blah blah.
Price Comparison of NCEES Exam Eligible Calculators
all fx-115 models
TI30X & TI36X models
HP33s & HP35s only
Check the Current NCEES Calculator Policy
It appears the calculator policy updates each November. Be sure to check the calculator policy here: NCEES policy.
What Should I Bring to the PE, Then?
So, be sure not to bring a $6 drug store Sharp EL-531W with you. You might give an old lady a seizure.
My back-up was the Casio fx-115W. Thank God I had it. It is permitted. Here is the list of officially sanctioned devices:
- Casio fx-115 (any variety)
- Hewlett Packard 33s and 35s models "but no others" (NCEES, 2012)
- Texas Instruments TI-30X and TI-36X (any variety of these two)
Be sure not to bring anything other than these, and be sure to double-check the list online before you come. Otherwise, you will have to make the walk of calculator shame back to your assigned seat; in front of everyone.
Use the Quick Reference in Your Calculator
Many calculators come with an equation or keys reference for quick use on the inside cover. Study this guide in advance so you have an understanding of how to use shortcuts and equations in advance.
Phase Three: Best Engineering Calculator for Professional Engineers
Okay! You passed the PE exam. You have a state-sealed license on your wall. Now, you need a new calculator, right?
All you use now is the $15 Casio you bought for the PE exam. Or, perhaps you use an HP48. Few practicing engineers use a TI. Why? Because the HP is actually designed for engineers. The TI is designed for students. For example, the HP can be symbiotically integrated into a Total Station, then used to download the survey into your computer. TI tech does not do that.
However, as stated above, be sure to keep the old guard calculator on the corner of your desk. People need to respect your massive brain, after all! (Use the small calculator in secret.)
Tips for Purchasing the Appropriate Calculator
If examination dates are approaching, buy earlier rather than waiting until the last minute. The best calculators at the lowest prices disappear fast. Plus, you really want to become familiar with it as soon as possible. What engineer does not love a new calculator?
Why I Bought the Casio fx-115W
When I ordered my Casio fx-115W (the solar model), I researched reviews on all three brands: Casio, HP, and Texas Instruments. I bought the Casio because it won in both categories I chose as criteria for my selection: price and user ratings. I have listed Amazon links for you to find a good price. You'll see what I mean.
I went to the local Office Max. They sell TI-30 calculators for about $18 and TI-36 scientific calculators for $23 each. The HP units are priced much higher. The HP 33s sells for around $30 and the HP 35s sells for about $60.
The solar Casio I bought is easy to use and there is no need to be concerned that the batteries will die during your EIT exam, or at 2 a.m. while you're pulling an all-nighter to wow a new customer. And, it sells in the range of only $10 to $15. It's the best value.
If you decide to buy your PE exam study materials from ppi2pass.com, you can bundle your calculator purchase in with that purchase, save on shipping, and receive a 5% discount on books using this code word: PASS1114. Enter it into the discount code box during checkout.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.