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With each extension of number, the meanings of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are extended. In each new number system—integers, rational numbers, real numbers, and complex numbers—the four operations stay the same in two important ways: They have the commutative, associative, and distributive properties and their new meanings are consistent with their previous meanings.
Calculators, spreadsheets, and computer algebra systems can provide ways for students to become better acquainted with these new number systems and their notation. They can be used to generate data for numerical experiments, to help understand the workings of matrix, vector, and complex number algebra, and to experiment with non-integer exponents.
During the years from kindergarten to eighth grade, students must repeatedly extend their conception of number. At first, “number” means “counting number”: 1, 2, 3... Soon after that, 0 is used to represent “none” and the whole numbers are formed by the counting numbers together with zero. The next extension is fractions. At first, fractions are barely numbers and tied strongly to pictorial representations. Yet by the time students understand division of fractions, they have a strong concept of fractions as numbers and have connected them, via their decimal representations, with the base-ten system used to represent the whole numbers. During middle school, fractions are augmented by negative fractions to form the rational numbers. In Grade 8, students extend this system once more, augmenting the rational numbers with the irrational numbers to form the real numbers. In high school, students will be exposed to yet another extension of number, when the real numbers are augmented by the imaginary numbers to form the complex numbers.
Extending the properties of whole-number exponents leads to new and productive notation. For example, properties of whole-number exponents suggest that (5 to the 1/3 power)³ should be 5 to the (1/3)³ power = 5¹ = 5 and that 5 to the 1/3 power should be the cube root of 5.