Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Open Notebook Science @ UNM Physics, Round 3 -- If you have technology for us to try, let us know

2009 fall semester has started at UNM and I'm teaching Junior Lab (Physics 307L) for my 3rd and "final" time*. I've described in an earlier post the open science aspects of this modern physics undergraduate lab course. In a nutshell, it's a typical modern physics lab course with an important twist in that we operate completely using open notebook science (ONS). I still believe (but don't have proof) that these students are at an excellent stage in their careers to learn skills and habits in ONS. We've been through about a week of the course, and already I can see that we again have a great batch of talented students! I wish I could fast forward a decade to see what they're going to be achieving in the future. Right now, though, you can see their mug shots on our course people page on OpenWetWare.

The thing that inspired me to dust off this blog is the realization that even though we've already started the semester, there's no reason we can't continue trying new things throughout the semester. So, if you're aware of new (or old) technology that you think would be good for ONS, I think we have several students who would be interested in testing it out in a real ONS atmosphere. If you do, please post a message here, or on the friendfeed thread. As noted earlier, OpenWetWare is the foundation for our ONS. But we've started to include other tools as well, many of them integrated into OWW thanks to Bill Flanagan's hard work. One big change this year is that I think students are likely to use Google Docs as a way of recording spreadsheet data. Tables in WikiMedia are just too annoying. And now, Google Docs are easily embedded in OWW pages. You can see an example of an embedded spreadsheet in Tom Mahony and Ryan Long's open notebook.

There's another thing that I'm excited about that may make ONS much easier for us. Currently, the standard method for uploading photos or other documents to OWW is inconvenient. It can take a good minute to snap a photo of your experimental setup and then go through a convoluted process of emailing it to yourself, saving, uploading to OWW. I think we're close to a good solution that leverages Evernote's nice application for mobile phones. I recently discovered that you can easily make public notebooks in Evernote, and that these public notebooks have a nice RSS feed. Tom Mahony noticed that there is a MediaWiki widget for embedding an RSS feed in a page. He even implemented a test public evernote feed in his OWW notebook (see this page). So, now we're to this point:

  1. Snap photo with mobile phone, using Evernote application. (Actually can be any kind of note, photo, voice note, etc.)
  2. Photo is stored by default in your public notebook (or you move it over manually).
  3. RSS feed embedded in OWW shows new content.
Only step #1 requires user involvement. But the problem is that currently the image is not actually displayed or uploaded in OWW, and there isn't a good way to selectively show only relevant parts of the feed. But it seems to me those are very solvable steps. I think this will be a very nice feature, because over the past couple years, I've seen all my students struggle with barriers to getting information into their electronic notebook. So, any steps that are removed are a big deal.

* The tradition in the department dictates that I must demonstrate teaching diversity in order to obtain tenure. There is also the belief that instructors become bored and their teaching stale after 3 semesters of teaching a course. I think these are fairly common beliefs in physics departments around the country, and it means that next fall I'll have to teach a new course. I find this policy de-motivating and inefficient, and will do my best to help the policy evolve over the next many years.


  1. Hi, Steve.

    This comment is directed at the footnote -- I would also say that there is no magic about "three" that should make it a rule. Instead, I suspect this was put into place as a measure of intolerance; that is, for people who don't want to teach a class, 3 is the max number before they become ugly about it. For people who do enjoy a certain course -- or for those like me who are lecturers and teach all the time -- there are pros and cons to teaching the same course a lot. The pros are more immediately obvious: easier prep, learning curve for teacher makes class more effective by 3 round. Cons are also obvious, most especially teacher burnout and lack of inventiveness because of reduced prep time. But one important pro that I think only happens over a longer haul by the same instructor teaching the same course is real innovation as the instructor becomes very familiar with the material. For me, this innovation doesn't happen until I reach a kind of "brown-out" phase where my comfort with teaching something comes up against my desire for things to be new and different. At that point, course material that I am frustrated by or bored with comes under attack!

    One missing element to most college-level teaching, though, is professional development time. This semester, I've got a small faculty dev. grant giving me time off one class to "work on my web material" (which 95% of my classes are!). So I've really got time to think about what should be done, time to go into the literature and browse the web for lots of ideas, and time to create new stuff -- a luxury that's much harder to pull off during the course of a regular semester.

    I imagine for you this is different -- you are tenure track so have multiple demands on your time. Rotating new profs through many of the core classes is a good idea for helping them develop an understanding of how the curriculum works to educate students in the major (or non-major in the case of electives). This method also provides (or should provide) some insight into what could be improved. But it is also effective to allow those interested to specialize in a course or level, especially if there are TAs to train; this sort of professional mentoring is extraordinarily useful for grad students bent on an academic life.

    Yikes! This is what happens when I have time to work at home. My apologies for the rambling!

  2. Mickey -- Thanks for the great insights! It's good to hear from you both the pros and the cons, since I've been bogged down by the cons lately. It's a good argument that teaching at all levels would give me a better perspective of the department's teaching mission. I can accept or even embrace that. The way it was presented to me (sometimes aggressively) is that the purpose was for me to show competence at all levels. Looking at it that way it seems very inefficient, and silly. Why would we want to build a department full of people competent at all levels instead of full of people who excel at some levels? So, I like looking at it from your perspective better :) Also, I like your idea about allowing interested faculty to specialize and to use it as an opportunity to mentor the next generation. A key there is "interested," which implies not having set rules and instead leveraging each department member's individual talents in different ways.


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