Carl's Corner

Carl’s Corner: A Closer Look at Desmos

As Director of Innovation for a 1-to-1 iPad district, I was always looking for inventive ways to utilize the devices. I searched for ideas that were both helpful for students and also saved the district financially. In 2013, we began to use the Desmos app as an alternative to the expensive TI-84 graphing calculators. The interactive interface and built in features provided much more than a traditional graphing calculator would for our math teachers.

In 2015, after years of back-and-forth with the state, we became the first district to pilot test their app during state-wide high stakes assessments. I was so excited, I even wrote a blog about it. Working with the crew at Desmos, they had created a “Test mode” version of their app for us to use. However, over the years, we discovered that Desmos offers so much more than just a great interactive calculator. This week, we put Desmos under the microscope and see where this company has come from and where it is heading.

History

Desmos is a web-based application that got it’s start as a graphing calculator back in 2011. The name comes from the Greek word that means “link, or connection, or bond”. Eli Luberoff founded the company as a former math and physics double major from Yale. It exploded on the scene via the Tech Crunch Disrupt conference and subsequent article shouting “Math Geeks Rejoice!” as this was the first of it’s kind java-based interactive online calculator. And the best part was the price…..FREE. When you consider the cost of a traditional TI-84 calculator is just north of $80, you can see how this might benefit students from all areas.

They’ve added many educational minds to their team over the years including the amazing Dan Meyer. As a company, they have always been extremely receptive to educator input. My friend and colleague Cathy Yenca (@mathycathy) has long been an advocate of their work and uses the app regularly in her middle school Algebra classroom.

Recent Updates

I general don’t focus on subject-specific apps and Desmos is no different. When I was visiting classrooms at one of my middle schools in 2016, I noticed a history teacher (@historyhiott) using Desmos. I asked her what she was doing using a math app to her history class. She informed me of the highly versatile Desmos “Polygraph” feature she was using to play a “Guess Who” game of the Age of Reform. As the app allows photos, this Polygraph feature can be used for any subject area. Using a join code, it matches students up randomly across the room (or across the city if remote learning). Students then ask each other critical thinking “yes or no” type questions to pinpoint what object the other student is targeting. Here’s a video about how this activity works pulled from my Remote Learning Coach course:

In 2020, while still primarily a web-based application, they released a version for Android along with updates to their already robust iOS version. They’ve also added a TON of updates to their “activity builder”, essentially turning Desmos into an alternative for tools like Nearpod or Pear Deck. With this new feature, you can have students join via code and participate in a series of polls, questions, written or drawn responses, a perfect use for blended or remote learning. While math is still at the center of these activities and the majority of collections you’ll find, there are many non-math activities being added daily.

In an era where we try to turn STEM to “STEAM” Desmos has also risen to the challenge. Last year they began their Global Math Art Contest consisting of art from students built entirely on using graphing formulas. Check out some of the amazing student art here.

Pricing

As mentioned before, this program is FREE. Unlike some free programs, Desmos does not make money from advertising or selling student data. They are funded by partners in the educational industry including publishers, assessment companies and educational institutions.

Stand out feature

While the graphing calculator interface is phenomenal and user-friendly, the activity builder really stands out here. You can add a variety of question types (multiple choice, short answer, ordered list, drawing) to any quiz you decide to push out to students. Additionally, activities like the afore mentioned Polygraph and card sort can be used with embedded media (video or picture) opening this up to any subject area.

Ideas for classroom use

The applications for math teachers are too long to list in this blog. The graphing calculator functionality is the bread-and-butter of this application and still the primary reason it is utilized in schools. They’ve even recently released a 6-8 curriculum that utilizes many of the interactive functionality of their app for schools to use. That said, there are many other ways to use Desmos in K-12 classrooms aside from math.

First use idea:

I really like using the “Getting to Know Each Other” activity that Desmos has created to get to realize many of the features of the platform from both the teacher reporting side and the student interaction side. Like any activity you find within the Desmos collections, you can copy it and modify it as you see fit.

Subject Specific Ideas:

I’ve touched on the History example from above, but other subject areas could utilize the free tools built into Desmos activities to gamify assessment and increase interaction. World languages teachers could have students play the Polygraph game with different objects where the students have to ask their yes or no questions in a different language. ELA or Science teachers could use the card sort functionality to have student match up similar terms, metaphors, or language concepts. It really just comes down to how you want to use the activities with your students.

Additional Resources:

Desmos Art: The Definitive Guide to Computational Sketching (Math Vault Blog)

Starting a Desmos Class Activity (Desmos blog)

Could This Digital Math Tool Change Instruction for the Better? (KQED)

Introducing Desmos to Other Subject Areas (Desmos Activity)

Desmos for Not Math (blog)

If you have found success using Desmos in your classroom, feel free to comment below with your ideas. Also, if you have a tool or app that you’d like me to look at and review, feel free to fill out this form below. I’ll be sure to give you a shout out (if you like) as well! (Please note – if you are a vendor/company – fill out this link for a sponsored review)

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