Saturday, March 3, 2012

Learning Curve

Lately I've been spending what little free time I have working on research and also preparing some presentations for Argentina. Part of my role in this program is visiting local schools and also helping with professional development for teachers. To this end, other Fulbright DAT alums have suggested that I prepare several presentations that I can give at the drop of a hat rather than have to throw something together at the last minute. I have taken this sage advice to heart, and am slowly but surely putting things together.

As a favor to my less-than-stalwart readers, I should warn you that the following might be a shade on the dry side. However, if you're looking for a better mousetrap, keep reading.

Now, for those of you that know me well, this won't come as a surprise, but I've decided to make this a learning opportunity and make this as challenging as possible. Over the past few years I've grown more and more frustrated with a popular set of software that is nearly ubiquitous on PC's. Embedding images in a program that rhymes with bird was the first straw- lengthy documents simply refused to save midway through a long editing process. The second stage was working with equations, which is ok, but issues begin to surface with formatting and moving between different programs of the same suite. Bulleting, lists, and auto formatting nearly broke the camel's back. So I've been staging my own silent rebellion for a little while- I started with OpenOffice, but it seems like a slightly clunkier version of the same basic concept. That doesn't mean that I don't use it and don't recommend it (especially to students- it's free!), but it's not the silver bullet I'm looking for. At this point I should include a disclaimer: I love spreadsheets (and the program that is commonly used to create them, it rhymes with mix-hell) am not trying to replace them, it's the document side of the coin that is failing me.

Around this time I started using Linux (Ubuntu) with my schools Cosmic Ray Muon Detector as part of the QuarkNet Project. This was an interesting process- it engaged me and challenged me in a way that I hadn't experienced in a while. I certainly wouldn't call myself an expert user, but I can get by. It's been great for running analysis of our data files. Anyway, I digress. I was at an International Conference on Cosmic Rays (Thanks QuarkNet!) and noticed that nearly all of the other presenters were doing something funny when working on their presentations- they would type a bit in a text window, and then press a button and switch to a different window, where their presentation was. I asked my co-presenter what they were doing and he explained that they were using LaTeX. After returning from the conference I looked into LaTeX (after figured out how to spell and pronounce it properly), but it was a bit intimidating to jump into, especially in the middle of the school year. I eventually stumbled across Lyx, which I would describe as LaTeX lite. I used it to create a packet of notes for my AP class. It took a little while to pick up, but I got the hang of it. In the end I had trouble getting the images to be the correct size and in the right spot, so I didn't use it much more.

Last fall I put together a SMARTboard presentation on teaching physics for a regional staff development day. I was looking for something Lyx-like to use and I found a Lyx-based template for a program called Beamer. I basically just used a template someone else had created and filled in the blanks, but I was pleased with the result. Unfortunately, the attendance wasn't overwhelming (physics teachers aren't exactly a dime a dozen around here), but at least I learned something new.

Cut to present day: I have a lot of presentations to make and a report to write at the end of the program. I want to be as professional as possible, and using Powerpoint is a death sentence for so many kittens. Lyx seems a bit silly when I could just get at the root of things by using LaTeX itself. In conjunction with a good editor (I've been using Texmaker), I've found the process to be pretty smooth. I'm well on my way and have had great help from folks over at stack overflow when I get stuck.

Examples: Raw code and Output

If you're interested in this process (which my brother-in-law fondly referred to as "sufficiently obscure"), I would recommend starting with the links above. You can also check out for details about using LaTex on Windows machines.

Hopefully everyone is asleep by now. I apologize for the nerdy rant and promise that my next post will be more lively. Until then, good luck Red Storm Hockey!

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