Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Computational Geology 29 Quantitative Literacy: Spreadsheets, Range Charts and Triangular Plots

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Computational Geology 29 Quantitative Literacy: Spreadsheets, Range Charts and Triangular Plots

Article excerpt

Topics this issue

Mathematics: algebra of intersecting straight lines; trigonometry of 30-60-90-degree triangles; vector addition.

Geology: size, shape and gravity of the Earth; nomenclature of sedimentary rocks.

Quantitative literacy: visual display of data; National Assessment of Educational Progress.


Spreadsheets in Education (eJSiE) is a new electronic journal that aims "to provide a focus for advances in understanding the role that spreadsheets can play in constructivist educational contexts.... (The journal) is a free facility for authors to publish suitable peer-reviewed articles and for anyone to view and download articles" (from their home pace:

In the inaugural issue, the Editors in Chief published an extensive review (Baker and Sugden, 2003) of how spreadsheets have been used in education - mostly in mathematics and statistics, but also physical sciences, computer science, and economics and operations research. The paper contains 205 references.

Baker and Sugden (2003) open their review with a brief history of spreadsheets in general and refer the readers to a more-extensive online history by Power (2004). Drawing on that source:

* The term "spread sheet" derives from accounting jargon. It refers to a large sheet of paper with columns and rows which spreads or shows costs, income, taxes, and other data in a way that managers can examine easily and make decisions.

* VisiCalc was the first electronic spreadsheet. The prototype was developed in 1978 by Dan Bricklin, a student at Harvard Business School, for a case history project. Bricklin's early spreadsheet program consisted of a manipulable matrix of five columns and 20 rows. VisiCalc appeared in 1979 and, according to Baker and Sugden (2003), is said to be the application, more than any other, that sold millions of Apple II computers.

* VisiCalc was slow to respond to the introduction of the IBM PC. Lotus 1-2-3 was developed in the early 1980s and bought out VisiCalc in 1985. Lotus 1-2-3 made the spreadsheet into a data presentation package as well as a calculation tool. It added integrated charting, plotting and database capabilities and introduced cell naming, cell ranges and macros.

* The market leader today is Microsoft Excel. Originally written for the 512 Apple Macintosh in 1984-1985, Excel added a graphical interface and point-and-click mouse capabilities. According to Power, "many people bought Apple Macintoshes so that they could use Bill Gates' Excel spreadsheet program." Its graphical user interface was easier for users than the command line interface of PC-DOS spreadsheets. Then, in 1987, Microsoft launched its Windows operating system. Excel was one of the first application products released for it. When Windows finally gained wide acceptance with Version 3.0 in late 1989, Excel was Microsoft's flagship product. IBM acquired Lotus Development in 1995.

For more about the history of spreadsheets, Baker and Sugden (2003) refer us to history/index.htm, one of the several useful sites by J-Walk and Associates of Tucson AZ. J-Walk and Associates consists of John Walkenbach, author of some 30 books, including Excel for Dummies.

Educators immediately jumped on spreadsheets as an educational tool. Baker and Sugden (2003) highlight a paper by Hsaio (1985) that makes the point that "while computers are clearly useful tools for education generally, one of the main disadvantages is having to program them. In many cases (at least in 1985), students had to learn a programming language in order to benefit from computers." Spreadsheets, of course, provided a way around that problem.

To me, the outstanding power of spreadsheets in education is their usefulness in problem-solving. Baker and Sugden (2003) note a 1988 doctoral dissertation on that very subject (Leon-Argyla, 1988).

I was particularly interested to note that Baker and Sugden (2003) cited a paper and a book by Dean Arganbright (1984,1985) to support their statement that educators were beginning to discuss their experiences with spreadsheets as early as 1984. …

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