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Osterhaus, S.A. (2001). Susan's math technology corner: The ORION TI-34 talking scientific calculator from Orbit Research. Division on Visual Impairments Quarterly, 46(3), 37-41.
Susan with student using Orion Calculator

Background

Approximately two years ago I decided to evaluate all the available accessible standalone talking scientific calculators to facilitate the purchase of several for high school students' needs. After the evaluation period, I constructed a chart comparing the various features of these calculators and listing possible vendors and suggested prices; I then published this chart on my website. I found that no one calculator had everything for all people. Therefore, I still maintain that each individual should assess their own needs and/or that of their student and make a choice based on their unique situation. Maxi-Aids, Independent Living Aids, Inc., and Orbit Research graciously loaned me their products for this evaluation and should be commended for their support.

The last such calculator I evaluated was the ORION TI-34. All of my students and I were in agreement that the ORION was the calculator best suited for our needs. In my case, I am always looking for the "best buy" in any math technology. However, although my definition of best buy includes price affordability - user-friendliness, features, and reliability are equally important.

Affordability

The  flyers http://www.orbitresearch.com/ from Orbit Research all proclaim the ORION to be the "world's first affordable talking scientific calculator." At $249 per unit, this is truthful advertising. In previous years, we could not afford to pay up to three times this amount for the convenience of one standalone calculator, especially when we needed a classroom set. Instead, we chose to use four function talking calculators in combination with talking scientific calculator software located on various desktop and laptop computers and notetakers - which didn't make for a very unified approach to instruction. We can now afford multiple classroom sets and an individual can now afford her own personal ORION.

User-Friendliness

The ORION is small (5.8 by 2.9 by 1.5 inches) and light in weight (11 oz), so a classroom set is easily stored. For individuals, an ORION is very portable and can easily fit into a pocket, purse, or backpack. The top .5 inch layer of the ORION (including the keypad and sliding, impact resistant plastic cover) begins with the popular TI-34 scientific calculator from Texas Instruments, so the ORION user automatically receives the benefits of TI's extensive experience in calculator design. The remaining 1-inch depth contains the heart of the ORION and allows it to voice every key on the keypad in natural speech. In addition, this extra casing provides the volume control (thumb-wheel), ear outlet, adapter (battery charger) input port, learn/speech mode button, and repeat/off button.

In our experience, high school students in academic and remedial math classes became familiar with the layout of the basic keys quite quickly. They found the learning mode button extremely helpful. Initially, it allowed them to identify the various keys and learn which keys would be of benefit to them at their respective math levels. As they began to perform operations, they liked the convenience of being able to exit a computation problem, enter the learning mode to find the location of a specific key, exit the learning mode, and re-enter the computation operation without disturbing their problem in progress. The students also liked the clear speech output.

With technology specifically designed for the blind, we often find that although it may be user-friendly for the blind student, there is an extensive learning curve for their sighted teacher. Since the ORION is truly accessible by both the blind and sighted, teachers, parents, and peers do not need to learn to use a special device in order to teach or assist these students.

In fact, if the regular ed math teacher has selected the TI-34 as the calculator of choice for the classroom, since both the TI-34 and the ORION have identical functionality, the entire class can use the same calculator. An algebra teacher visited me recently. His district had asked that he learn everything there was to know about teaching algebra to a blind student in one afternoon, as a blind student would be enrolled in his class the n year. I proceeded to do the best I could in the limited amount of time and showed him all my various tools and technology - all of which were new to him. Imagine the smile of recognition, when I showed him the ORION - the only piece of technology with which he was familiar. He breathed a sigh of relief as he told me that he had used the TI-34 extensively with his previous classes and teaching a blind student how to use the ORION would be a snap.

The ORION user manual comes in large print, cassette, and floppy disk, and an optional teacher's manual is available for the TI-34. A high quality earphone for quiet operation is included, as well as the AC adapter.

Orion calculator, manual, charger, ear piece, audio cassett, software, cheat sheet.

Features    

In addition to the user-friendly features, the ORION offers over 95 scientific functions including statistics and trigonometry. This should not be thought of as intimidating, but instead as versatile. After learning the basic keys, students can slowly learn each new function key as their math skills increase.

Although the students in remedial mathematics could perform the vast majority of their computations on a regular 4 function talking calculator, they all fell in love with the fraction key, which is not available on any other standalone talking calculator. The steps necessary to solve fraction problems were learned quickly and easily. Not only were the students able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions and mixed numbers, they were able to reduce their answers to lowest terms and convert them to improper fractions or decimal equivalents. Another popular key was the backspace key found on computer keyboards. The only other standalone talking calculator that has this feature is the Audiocalc from Canada. This function allows the user to backspace during construction, and erase any digit in a constituted number, starting with the last digit entered. The ability to quickly fix a mistake without having to start all over again while performing a complicated calculation makes this key extremely valuable.

Pre-algebra and algebra students, who encounter a great many fractions and are just as prone to making entry errors, were equally enamored with the fraction and backspace keys. They quickly added the +/- key to their repertoire, enabling them to manipulate negative numbers as well. The x! (factorial) key also proved handy. Order of operations is preserved including the use of parentheses; therefore little need exists for extra memory positions. The square and square root functions and scientific notation quickly followed. As students advance into higher algebra, they begin to use the universal power and root functions. Geometry students will want to add the use of the pi constant.  

Reliability

We have found the ORION TI-34 calculations to be accurate and reliable. It is capable of displaying and speaking entries and results up to 10 digit+2 digit (-99 to +99) exponents and has an internal accuracy of 12 digits.

It is extremely important to initially charge the battery for at least 16 hours before using it. Once fully charged, it should be capable of over 6 hours of continuous operation, which translates to several days or even weeks of average intermittent use. The calculator has the added feature of shutting itself down after being idle (for a time pre-selected by the user) to preserve the battery charge. Then it is best to charge the unit overnight for about 14-16 hours, shortly after it starts announcing "low battery". It is of course important that the battery be discharged as much as possible before being recharged, to avoid the "memory effect" that is present in every rechargeable battery. The battery should last between 500-1000 charging cycles.

The ORION is so sophisticated that one should think of it more as a miniature computer; and it should be handled with care. Similar to a computer, the earliest models of the ORION TI-34 had certain software bugs and hardware problems. The ORION has been expressly designed to be software upgradable, in order to fix any bug that may arise. Specific circuit changes have now removed the buzzing sound that was present on some of the earlier units. Orbit Research assures me that other bugs have been fully investigated, understood, and fixed. They have a complete database, which tracks all problems that occur in the field so that they can fully address these efficiently. These issues have been resolved by enhanced circuitry in the newer units and by updating circuitry on older units. The newer models also feature a new molded case. Orbit Research backs up the product with a 1-year warranty which covers manufacturing defects. I have always found them to be most cooperative, supportive, and greatly appreciative of all input from their customers.

Recommendations

I definitely recommend this calculator for students taking high school algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus. Furthermore, it can easily be used by middle school students in pre-algebra and by any student requiring assistance in working with fractions, after thorough instruction in fraction concept development. WARNING: After exposure to the ORION, 99% of students are addicted and want one of their own.

Susan A. Osterhaus, M.Ed.
Secondary Mathematics Teacher
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
1100 West 45th Street
Austin, TX 78756
Phone: (512) 206-9305
Fax: (512) 206-9453
E-mail: or

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