Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Science Labs and Teaching with chromebooks (Part 1)

A new series of posts for 2016

I've decided to start a series of blog posts about my day to day life at the University of the West of Scotland where I am Research Theme Leader for Ultrasound Imaging. The main focus of these posts will be the use of a chromebook for Academic and scientific work. The reasoning behind this is to disprove the, false, notion that chromebooks are merely devices for browsing the internet and social networking.

I currently use an Acer CB11 chromebook, it's not the most flashy of devices but it does most of everything that I require. I dabbled with crouton for a few weeks to get a full linux desktop on the chromebook, however, I didn't use it enough to justify the space it took up and therefore I powerwashed the device back to the standard chromeOS. These blog posts will try and stick as close to a standard chromebook as possible.

I have a rough idea of the topics that I will cover in upcoming posts (which will start properly after this list!), and I am open to suggestions and comments from readers regarding their use, positive or negative of chromebooks in any academic environment. Upcoming topics include:

  • Running a lab-group with Google Sheets 
  • Academic writing with Google Docs and Paperpile
  • Presenting lectures with Google Slides
  • Project planning with Gantt

Running a lab-group with Google Sheets 

I currently run a small research group which focusses on Ultrasound Imaging, and developing high resolution probes for biomedical imaging and NDT measurements. I currently have 2 PhD students and 2 undergraduates working for me. In the near future I am recruiting 3 post-docs, and will have 4 visiting students working in the laboratory. Each person working in my group has their own research project which they work on autonomously, with overlap to other projects to install a group dynamic and teamwork.

I was looking for a simple method of keeping track on the research and work carried out in the lab-spaces, preferably with a method to produce reports or summaries of outputs and issues. In the past I have designed an SQL database with front-end to gather this information, but I found that this took up too much time in the debugging and design stages. Google Sheets provided a simple solution which the lab members have found easy to adjust to.
Figure 1: Google Sheet set-up for lab recording

Instead, a google Sheet was created with five, self explanatory columns (Figure 1) and a form is used as the front-end (shown in figure 2) All lab members are advised to keep the link as a bookmark in their browsers. At the end of each day spent in the lab, the user visits the form and enters their data. This has been designed to take no more than 20 seconds, and is to be used as a shorthand summary of their formal lab-books. I have designed the form such that the member selects their name from a drop-down list, this reduces their data-entry time and formalises their name as the identifier for their data. 
Figure 2: Form presented to the user
Once their content is submitted, the spreadsheet is automatically populated. Since the spreadsheet is hosted by google-docs, I have access to this data anywhere that I have internet access (via the google Sheets app on Android, or my chromebook).

However, the main benefit of using this method is the ability to have a worksheet for each member of the lab inside the google Sheets file. In each worksheet, a pivot table is used to create a live report of their work. Some of my lab members have to fill out a monthly report for their Visa requirements, and the ability to send them a monthly PDF of their pivot worksheet as a lab progress report is a real time saver. 

As part of the running of the lab group, I hold weekly meetings with the whole group to keep track of what is happening. Using a chromebook to have immediate access to these pivot tables for each lab member has been very useful for engaging with the quieter members of the group.

Inside the main spreadsheet, I have my own private columns where I can add notes and tags (project names, other supervisors etc) to expand the usefulness of the data. With this supplementary data, I have my own set of pivot tables that allows me to pull out entries relating to a body of work or project (or indeed, time period), allowing me to keep better track of what is happening in my lab group.

This method doesn't use any special software or add-ons (indeed it would work on any computer with access to google docs), and I would recommend it as a free method of logging your lab member's work. The benefit of using a chromebook is the 10 hour battery life for when I am in the lab all day and away from my office, with the spreadsheet available as an offline file for where the WiFi is patchy (hello 1970's architecture!).

In the next post, I'll talk about how I engage with my student's academic writing with Google Docs, and the use of the wonderful Paperpile app as a reference manager and citation tool.


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  2. I saw your topic on Reddit and I'm eager to know the further development and the outcomes of this process.

    1. Thanks. I'll be updating as it goes along.