Modern spreadsheet programs such as Corel's Quattro Pro and Microsoft's Excel offer a wealth of functions, features and resources for the professional and the novice alike. While it can all seem overwhelming to the beginner the principles of spreadsheet programming are not difficult to understand and of course the programs themselves are easy to use. In fact, most people who already have some experience with computers would be able to teach themselves the basics of spreadsheet programming and will be able to start doing simple calculations within a few minutes and fairly complicated projects within a few hours.
Powerful, inexpensive, and easy to use, spreadsheets have the potential of transforming our courses in much the same way that pocket calculators did years ago. This web site describes an effort to develop modules for, and methods of, using spreadsheets in standard materials science and engineering courses. In these pages you will find the modules I have developed, descriptions of implementations in my and others courses, and results of the assessment of the effectiveness of this teaching tool and other resources related to the use of spreadsheets in science and engineering courses.
On this page I provide a little more background on the SAMS project itself, the rational for using spreadsheets, the design of the modules and the status of the project.
- Why Spreadsheets?
- What Else Can Using Spreadsheets Teach?
- Design Guidelines
- Current Status
I have been using spreadsheet in my courses in various ways for several years. The solution sets for all homework assignments are in spreadsheet form. Grades are compiled, and posted, using spreadsheets. I use them to develop research and teaching budgets and they are essential in my laboratory courses where they are used to plan the experiments and compile and analyze data.
Students, on the other hand, seem to be ignoring the spreadsheet program that is already on their computer, a program that could be making their studies a lot easier. Many graduating seniors I talked to had never used a spreadsheet, although they had used a number of powerful and expensive chemistry and process control programs. This revealed a flaw in our teaching methods and explained why many students had trouble with a number of my assignments. These assignments often involved simple but repetitive calculations or asked for graphs of data. I encouraged students to use a spreadsheet or whatever software programming tools they were familiar with, but I did not require it. Without fail, most would perform all of the calculations and plotting manually, and complained about how long it took to complete the assignment. After showing them how I did the exercise using a spreadsheet they admitted that that would have been much easier, but in subsequent assignments few would try my method and would again complain about how long it took to complete the assignment. I could have simplified the assignments so that they would not have to spend so much time on them, or I could find a way to make using spreadsheets a natural part of their studies.
The SAMS project was undertaken to remedy this situation, and to make using spreadsheets as common and natural as using pocket calculators.
- Availability - Spreadsheets are readily available through retail and shareware channels. Many computers come with Microsoft Excel or Corel Quattro Pro already installed. In addition, free spreadsheets such as the one included in OpenOffice are also available.
- Wide acceptance - Many people are already using spreadsheets. This means that one can easily share one's spreadsheet with many others.
- Cost - Spreadsheets are relatively inexpensive. The cost to a student or to a school interested in integrating spreadsheets into their curriculum is minimal.
- Learning Curve - It is relatively easy to learn to use spreadsheets. The concepts involved are not abstract and the procedures are easy to learn.
- Graphing Capabilities - Generating charts and plots is easy.
- Function Set - Spreadsheets offer over 500 mathematical, engineering, financial and statistical functions plus a selection of powerful numerical and database tools.
- Appearance - It is easy to create a spreadsheet that is both functional, easy to read, and attractive, making it easy to produce reports that can be included in homework, laboratory and term assignments.
- Compatibility - Many other software programs support spreadsheets by either allowing one to import/export data or copying/pasting objects such as graphs and drawings.
Cost, availability and ease of use are probably the three most important of the above factors. Practically every student will already have a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft's Excel or Corel's Quattro Pro on their own computer and will have plenty of opportunity to explore them in their spare time. Also, the school will not have to set up computer laboratories and equip them with expensive software that few instructors knew how to use.
Using spreadsheets requires many of the skills learned when using any programming language, such as:
- Taking a systematic approach to defining and solving the problem.
- Organizing data and calculations so that the solution is readily obtained and so that the program can be expanded and adapted to solve similar problems.
- The ability to think in terms of operations involving blocks of data.
- Skill with a variety of numerical techniques.
- Documentation, essential if anyone else must understand how the program (spreadsheet) works. This would include even the author weeks or years after it was completed.
- Presentation, never forgetting that the results have to be shown to someone else.
Two of the books listed on the resources page speak to these issues. The author of "Spreadsheet Tools for Engineers, Excel 2000 Version" describes engineering analysis as a systematic process for which spreadsheets can help solve the problem, once the problem has been defined and the solution set up properly. The authors of "Spreadsheet Applications in Chemistry using Microsoft Excel" note that scientists these days need to be more multi-functional than ever before and literate in the many uses of the computer (plotting, data analysis, modeling, reports, presentations, communications) and that spreadsheets can play a vital role in these activities. They also note that some teachers and researchers may need a little help and encouragement getting started using spreadsheets.
The goal of SAMS is improving the teaching of materials science and engineering by integrating spreadsheets into the curriculum. The emphasis here is on the materials science. Spreadsheets are simply a powerful tool that should enhance student learning without diverting a lot of their energy to learning spreadsheet programming. In addition, a primary challenge for this project is gaining the acceptance of other instructors who already have well established courses and may reluctant to change them to incorporate my ideas. In addition, they might not be that familiar with spreadsheets. With all this in mind, the design guidelines for the SAMS modules are:
- Concentrate on the core subjects that are taught in most materials science programs.
- The materials science content of the modules will be developed sufficiently enough that instructors may want to use them as supplements.
- The basic exercises should be similar to those used in many courses. Many will be straight-forward extensions of these by, for instance, asking the student to repeat a calculation for several cases, generate plots for complicated equations, etc.
- Use only spreadsheet exercises that involve a compelling materials science concept. Do not include spreadsheet exercises that are more about spreadsheets than materials science.
- Use spreadsheet exercises that the students will appreciate. Ideally, the student will come away from the course with a set of useful spreadsheets.
- Build in flexibility. Some instructors may wish to use only small parts of SAMS while a few may want to use complete modules.
- Make the materials appropriate for a wide range of spreadsheet skill levels. Provide support for beginners and yet challenge the more experienced.
- Exploit the versatility of spreadsheets. Include exercises and projects that range from simple plots to multi-step modeling of materials phenomena, or importing data files to using spreadsheets to allow students to post and compile data from group experiments.
- Develop exercises that can be used for routine homework assignments, for term projects, and for laboratory experiments.
- Develop these modules with the instructor's spreadsheet skills in mind.
The foundation for the SAMS project has evolved over the years as a number of homework and laboratory exercises that I have used in my courses. With the support of NSF in 2002-04 work has begun to transform this loose collection of assignments and classroom experience into a product that others would want to use. When I finally left U.C. Davis I had completed several modules, and a few of them are available here for downloading. A number of others are in development and will be made available as soon as they are done.