It had been quite a while since I spend any significant amount of time in a classroom. Last week, however, I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop at the University of Wyoming at Laramie–run by astronomer and science fiction writer Mike Brotherton–and found myself in classrooms and labs for the better part of six days. Launch Pad is designed to give writers a crash course in astronomy. It is essentially a semester of Astronomy 101 crammed into six days. For science fiction writers like myself, it is an amazing resource. And it is a lot of work.
Of course, while at Launch Pad, I did my best to continue my practice of being completely paperless. In doing so, I finally got some notion of what a paperless classroom might be like, and some tips and tricks for taking advantage of it.
My Classroom Tools
Each day, I brought a handful of tools to class and these tools allows me to go paperless for the entire time.
- Google Chromebook for note-taking
- iPad for sketching out diagrams, etc.
- iPhone for snapping photos and capturing documents
- Bamboo stylus used in conjunction with the iPad for my diagram sketching
With these four items, I managed to stay paperless for the entire week. I could probably have gotten away with just the Chromebook and the iPhone, but I already had the iPad and so it was a sunk cost for me and didn’t really add significant weight to my messenger bag.
Evernote on the Google Chromebook
Because there is no native Evernote client of the Chromebook, I took all of my notes using the Evernote Web Client. It amounted to the most time I’ve spent using the Web client, and I was surprised to find that I could do just about everything I needed to do. I can’t think of any functions that I needed that I could not do from the web client.
My Class Notes Organization
I started the week by creating a Launch Pad notebooks in Evernote. All of my Launch Pad related notes and materials went into this notebook. Our days were broken into different lectures. I would create a new note for each lecture and then spend the lecture jotting down my notes. I ended up with a notebook full of lecture notes, documents scans, slides, sketches, and photos. When all was said and done, my notebook looked something like this:
Taking Notes in Evernote Web
Taking notes in Evernote Web was pretty easy, even technical notes that involved some mathematics. At the beginning of each lecture, I’d create a new note and give it the title of the lecture. Then I’d just start typing. Evernote has built in outlining features. There are also two handy toolbar buttons for subscript and superscript text, making it a little easier to include equations. Here is an example from the lecture on the Galactic Center:
I found I had no problem keeping my notes up with the lecture. Also, because Evernote Web saves your notes every few seconds, I did not worry about losing my work.
Drawings and Sketches instead of text notes
I think it would be impossible to get through an astronomy lecture without sketching out some kind of diagram. When this happened, I would switch to my iPad, which sat on the table right beside my Chromebook, and sketch out whatever it was that was necessary to capture. For instance, there was a discussion of “circumbinary stars” in which I sketched the following diagram:
I used the Paper app for these sketches, but I could just have easily used Penultimate. Once the sketch was complete, I’d email the note to my Evernote account, and automatically direct it to the Launchpad notebook by including “@Launchpad” in the subject line. This got the sketch into my notebook. After class, when I had more time, I often went in and added the image directly to the place in my notes for the lecture where it belonged, so that I’d have a better context for it in the surrounding notes.
Occasionally, we would be given handouts. In every case, I used the Document Camera feature in Evernote on my iPhone to capture the handouts in Evernote and include them in my Launch Pad notebook. I even did this with the pre-test we took, capturing both the questions and the answers I gave so that I could see my progress as we learned new things throughout the week:
Capturing results from lab activities
The lectures we attended were often followed by practical lab activities. Even during these activities, I tried to use the tools I had to document the results I’d get. In one, lab, for instance, we studied the spectra of different gasses and tried to figure out what kind of gas the spectra described. You did this by lighting the gas (exciting it) and then looking at the results through a spectrometer. I captured this by holding my iPhone camera up to the spectrometer and snapping a picture of the spectrum that resulted. Here is what my note looked like for incandescent light:
You can see I marked up the spectrum in the image using Skitch before attaching it to a note in Evernote. Here is another one, this time for neon gas, I think:
Capturing other course material
Our instructors used slides and videos and other media throughout the course, and these all became available at some point, either as PowerPoint presentations, PDFs, movie files, etc. I tossed all of these into my Launch Pad notebook so that I had a complete record of everything that went on during the class.
An impromptu Evernote talk
On Thursday evening, enough of my classmates had seen what I was doing, and they asked me to give an impromptu lecture on Evernote1. I was happy to do this on so after dinner in the dorm cafeteria, we marched back to the lecture room and I set about telling my new friends all about Evernote. I talked and demonstrated for about an hour, and then answered a whole bunch of questions. I think it went pretty well, but the proof came in the days that followed.
For example, after we dropped the rental van off at the airport, and the person who rented the van proceeded to scan his receipt into Evernote. He also captured the license plate of the car in Evernote. I saw a few people using Evernote to take notes during the lecture. Most everyone who gave it a try seemed to catch on quickly, both to its ease of use and its value.
Launch Pad was an amazing experience for me. It was also the first time that I really got to put Evernote to the test in a classroom environment. Based on my experience, it passed with flying colors. Moreover, I was surprised that I was able to do nearly everything I needed to right inside the web client. Thanks to the tools that Evernote provided, I was able to maintain a completely paperless classroom for the duration of Launch Pad.
If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.
- It may have helped that I was wearing my Evernote Ambassador t-shirt that day. ↩