An Israeli calculator to reinvigorate mathematical thinking

By J.J. Surbeck


J.J. Surbeck

SAN DIEGO –Quick! Don’t think (and don’t cheat with your calculator or your cell phone either)! How much is 3×7? 160/4? 6×7? 300+858?*
If you belong to the generation that learned multiplication tables in school, you probably had no problem doing these elementary calculations. But if you belong to the younger crowd, it’s quite possible that you had some difficulty even with such simple numbers. Or more likely, you didn’t even bother and whipped out instead your cell phone to let your fingers do the calculations. No need to use your grey matter. The little gizmo is there for that purpose, right? And it will always be, right?
Or will it?
Visiting Scholar Ilan Samson, an Israeli scientist living in San Diego (called “Inventor in Residence” at UCSD), bemoaned this dangerous tendency for years. He was joined by a chorus of math professors and educators across the world who have been watching in dismay as their students rely almost exclusively now on their calculators, to the point that – predictably – they can’t even make the simplest calculations on their own.
So Samson, being the resourceful and inventive Israeli that he is, decided to do something about this universal problem. And he came up with the most unorthodox approach anyone could have come up with: build a calculator that, initially, does NOT give the answer! More specifically, what it does is offer first a chance to the operators to come up with a result on their own. If they’re within a narrow margin of error (deemed “reasonable” by Samson), the correct result is shown. If they are way off, they are asked to try again. No cheating allowed.
In tests conducted with actual high-schoolers, instead of a rejection motivated by frustration or a complacent laziness induced by the easy availability of calculators, it was found that the kids actually enjoyed the aptly named QAMA (Quick Approximate Mental Arithmetic). For them, it turned out that they see it more as a game, or even a challenge rather than a chore. Why? Because there is nothing more satisfying for one’s self-esteem than to figure out the right answer. That is priceless.
And if you think that the students are the only ones pleased with this great invention, you should hear the maths teachers! To them this is manna from heavens, the solution to a problem that has plagued them for years.
There is more, too: the QAMA is not limited to simple arithmetics. This is a tool for advanced mathematics formulas and complex calculations as well. Pure math geek nirvana.
And where can this little marvel be found? Here:, for the very reasonable price of $19.60 (+ shipping).
If you want to know more, here is a more detailed article:
As a fellow San Diegan by adoption and active member of the community (his wife Smadar is to be credited for the complete overhaul and redecoration of the House of Israel in Balboa Park), Samson makes us all proud. In turn, we can help this great cause by doing two things: 1. buy a QAMA for yourself and learn how to challenge yourself (good for your brain anyway), 2. tell everyone you know about it who is even remotely involved in education. If you feel so inclined, you can also offer a whole class of 30 students one QAMA each, for $588.00 (of which $50 will be refunded for donated sets). I’m sure there will be no shortage of candidates.


*Answers:  21; 40; 42; 1,158


J.J. Surbeck is Executive Director of T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East), a local non-profit organization dedicated to bringing balance to the debate about the Middle East conflict. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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