We are currently going through a renaissance in education fueled by the ever-growing availability of capable computers and prominence of the web browser as a software platform. In STEM especially, concepts are commonly hard to grasp, let alone express. We are seeing an explosion of tools that allow both learners and educators to be more expressive with their academic experience. Perhaps even more importantly, these tools are decreasing the interval in the try/see feedback loop that is at the heart of learning.
If you visit a STEM tutor lab, you are sure to find many screens glowing with Desmos: a revolutionary online graphing calculator. At first glance, a graphing calculator may not seem so impressive, but that is why Desmos is so exciting. Gone are the days of learning the arcane dance necessary to communicate to your ancient and overpriced TI-84 (which runs the same Z80 processor as the original GameBoy™). With Desmos, you can effortlessly play around with concepts previously only accessible to calculator savants. Not only that, but Desmos offers a level of intractability never seen before in a math tool.
The Learning Feedback Loop
When learning a new concept, especially ones abstract as those found in the field of mathematics, learners will need to produce many versions of their own understanding before they find one that fits enough to generate their own ideas on the topic. A textbook provides a pre-processed concept that will not make sense to everyone, so efficient education must focus on the personal journey of each learner and their quest for true understanding.
There are many online graphing calculators these days, but none that afford the same ease and performance that Desmos offers. The simplicity of the tool means that students can rapidly ask questions, make experiments based on those questions, and get answers with profound intractability in their creations. Also, once these experiments have been created, they can be easily shared with a link that anyone with a web browser can use.
What sets Desmos apart from other online graphing tools is the simplicity of the user experience, and the cohesive nature of each component you interact with. Being a purely two-dimensional graphing utility, the most atomic concept in Desmos is that of a function. The key abstraction is that any component of a function can be made interactive by assigning it to a variable, where it becomes a slider. You may also add points, which can be clicked and dragged on the screen. Equations can reference each other, which allows for and organization of concepts that is both convenient for creation and the subsequent parsing by fresh eyes trying to understand the concept.
Recently, Desmos added colors to the app in the form of hue-saturation-value variables that may be referenced in the style for any element in the graph. The hue, saturation, and value can all depend on any existing variable in the graph, making it immensely powerful for producing dynamic visualizations that react in real-time to the users’ actions.
Desmos also offers amazing accessibility for their graphs. The toolkit now offers a way to listen to graphs so that visually-impaired learners and educators alike can use the tool.
Desmos is showing no signs of slowing down, and is constantly improving their feature set. It will be exciting to see what will be made and shared with their creative platform in the future. What will you make?