Quite a while back, I asked about useful physics apps that people are using on their smartphones and tablets. This blog entry covers something similar, but a bit more specific.
We all know that a lot of students in college (and even in high schools) nowadays have laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In fact, in some schools, they give out tablets to incoming freshmen as part of their registration package. Of course, these things are often used to browse the web, and maybe be even useful to take down notes in class. Still, I was thinking of some other ways that these items can be useful, and the one area that I think should be explored (if it hasn't already) is in the college physics laboratories.
There are already discussions going around on various research projects migrating to electronic lab books. I still haven't seen detailed description on how that is implemented, how it works in a collaborative environment, and how people keep them secure and archived. But the tell-tale signs are there, that this might easily be the wave of the future. So I believe that, as physics instructors, we should prepare the students for such an environment, and introduce the ability to migrate from our traditional pen-and-paper lab notebooks to the electronic version.
I have been exploring a few apps on my iPad on whether such a thing can be done in a college physics lab class. I first started out with a number of criteria that it must be able to do, based on what I expect from the students:
1. The students must keep their own lab notebook. They can scribble anything here, from notes taken during lab briefing, to notes taken during the experiment itself.
2. The record needs to be "permanent". In a traditional paper-and-pen lab book, all records must be written in ink. No erasing of anything.
3. The students will then use these notes to write a proper lab report that will be submitted (electronically, of course) along with the lab notes.
The only way that I can think of for the students to do their note-taking quickly and efficiently is to use apps that accept free-hand writing, using a stylus for convenience. It will allow them to quickly jot things down as if they are writing on paper, it allows them to make quick sketches, and also easily draw up a table when taking data. In other words, it will work just like a pen-and-paper situation.
However, the drawback here is that, unlike ink on paper, what they write and draw are not permanent, and there will always be a tendency to try and erase things off a page. While I can try to keep on drilling into their heads to not do that, there's nothing to absolutely prevent such an act. The only way I can think of to minimize them changing what they wrote in the lab is to require them to send whatever lab notes that they have done at the end of the laboratory session to me, via e-mail. That way, whatever they have written by the end of the experiment is now permanently stored in my record and can't be changed. I can always refer to these notes when reviewing/grading their lab reports.
So far, the apps that I've been testing and like the most is an iPad app Penultimate. With a stylus, it is quite easy to write notes, draw stuff, and make tables, all the things that I need to do in a lab. Each experiments can also be its own separate notes, so at the end of the lab, the students can easily just e-mail that to me. What is also nice about this app is that it can be synched to Evernote, another app. Evernote is an app that works under iOS, Android, and also a program that can be run under Windows and Mac. Once you synch items in Evernote, those items are accessible to all your devices that are running your Evernote. It is extremely convenient, you don't have to keep sending things around or e-mailing yourself documents. In this case, once you send your lab notes to Evernote, then when you get back home or to your room, if you have a desktop or laptop, you can always fire up Evernote, pull out your lab notes, and start writing your report. The apps is also useful when you have a collaborative effort with someone else, but I've yet to test that out extensively.
I haven't tested this out yet in a lab class because I am still trying it out on my own. But since the reader of this blog comes from such a varied background, I thought I throw this out in case some of you are already ahead of the curve and already are implementing such a scheme in your classes/laboratories. I would very much like to hear from you and what your experience is in doing something like this.
Edit: has anyone use LabGuru iPad app? This is something I'm interested in hearing and will be testing soon. But if you have used it, or are using it, I definitely want to hear from you.