Digital Engineering Notebooks - Future Seasons

As a mentor, I’ve been very pleased with how much better (both quantity and quality) my teams’ digital engineering notebooks have been over prior year’s handwritten versions.

I have a background in software, focused in fields that typically use copyright rather than patents as the choice for intellectual property, and so I don’t have some of the same experiences as others for a traditional engineering notebook in industry.

With that said, if the RECF is going to continue to allow (and encourage !?!?) digital engineering notebooks, what would other mentors and competitors like to see?

I had a conversation with another mentor recently on this subject. I find that using something like Google Docs with its ability to track changes over time (and attribute those changes) would, in my mind, satisfy the “verifiable timestamp” requirement of a notebook. To the point where maybe notebook entries need not be made sequentially. To the point where maybe having multiple documents (each serving a different purpose - one for competition results, one for CAD, one as a meeting journal, etc.) may be viable. I’d even be so radical as to suggest that all notebooks would be required to be in digital format.

If you were the RECF and tasked with a clean slate for the Engineering Notebook and associated Judging Rubric, what would you do, while still keeping/encouraging the engineer mindset of iteration and the Design Process?

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Personally I would keep the written engineering notebooks. Call me crazy but I prefer writing out everything and printing out cad and everything else. It better forces me to be on top of things.

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I also like the written notebook, it has a sense of “authenticity” or something that makes it feel more like an important document rather than just a file. I also like that things are written in pen, it shows your mistakes and makes you focus on what you are doing. You can’t just erase it and start over when you make a mistake.

Digital notebooks do have their benefits such as you can’t really loose it, or rather you can make backups. They are also much more accessible, because more than one member can contribute at once and they can be accessed from anywhere. Digital notebooks are also less work, adding pictures, code, etc is just a ctrl-c, ctrl-v away from being in your notebook.

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While the majority of employees in my offices carry a bound notebook there is still a concern that their written ideas are unavailable until they make it digital. Scanned copies don’t do much good either other than recording a concept. It isn’t until they take their ideas and put them into CAD, code, or text content where they can be organized and shared.

We use a PDM software that tracks every version of every element checked into the project repository. CAD files, project planning, emails, and documents submitted all identify the contributor and are time stamped. We also use GIT for software development.

While I do respect the simplicity of a bound paper book, students are used to a digital environment and this paves the way to what’s becoming the new standard. Collaborative, internet based, and less opportunity to circumvent the design process.

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I believe that as it is right now, digital documentation is already under scrutiny de facto by judges. As a competitor, I personally used digital documentation this season and last season. Last season, our digital documentation was the ace up our sleeve, and its what won us four awards, probably because of the majority of the season being remote. However, this season, our digital documentation was not nearly as effective in judging despite the fact that it was over 100 pages and checked every box on the engineering notebook rubric. We were disappointed to find that despite us thinking that our digital documentation was very well made, the judges at our state championship did not feel the same. In fact, we didn’t receive any judged awards at that tournament despite having one of the more unique robot designs. So, to put it simply, judges really can decide awards however they want to beyond the engineering notebook rubric. As soon as they complete the rubric, the differentiation between the highest scoring notebooks/presentations may come down to subjective matters, and unfortunately, included within these subjective matters may be whether the documentation is digital or handwritten, because like many have said, handwritten documentation feels more “authentic”. Because of this, while I do see the RECF continuing to allow digital documentation, I have doubts that they would be able to get all judges to see them on the same level as handwritten documentation.

In the wise words of one of the volunteers at our state championship, “I’m old school, but I don’t think digital notebooks have won at any reputable competition, not when against physical notebooks”.

So, I guess the future of digital documentation really does depend on what tournaments you go to, who’s looking at the documentation, etc. There’s a lot of factors at play, and I think it’d be hard to “normalize” digital documentation so to speak depending on your region, although I really do want it to happen.

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Engineering Notebook Format
  • RECF requires only physically bound Notebook
  • RECF allows either physical or digital; EPs specify submission format per-event (e.g. like Tipping Point season rules)
  • RECF requires digital only Notebook with version tracking, etc.

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Not sure why those are wise words; certainly seems close-minded and a bias of format over content.

I will agree that many judges, when presented with a digital notebook, will be immediately suspicious of the “verifiable timestamp” requirement. Personally, I find this counter-intuitive - version tracking on Google Docs is far more reliable than (allegedly) hand-written notebooks that have entries made the night before a competition and back-dated with varying degrees of effort to simulate the appearance that they were made in real-time.

If I had my druthers (and I won’t vote in my own poll), I’d go digital only, have EPs require the notebook submitted 48 hours in advance for the judges to review from the comfort of their homes. At the competition, the judges can then focus on the interview and watching actual match play to see how the theory matches the reality…

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However, I’m not sure there’s an easy way to say something like, “On every page, print the date it was last edited.” While Google Docs does track edit histories, putting it into a usable format, even into a list of “page edited, date edited”. We did a Google Slide notebook, but we just had a box at the bottom of each page where we manually entered the date; certainly an unverifiable timestamp. In fact, we copied it into a Google Slide from a physical notebook mid-season, so the edit history would have had it all written in January, including the October entries.

If there is a better way to have verifiable timestamps in either a Google Doc or Slide, please tell me, and I may prefer that to a physical notebook, then. If teams use it, though, and that’s a big if (what about us this season?).

Why not? You’re a person, too; I don’t see why making the poll should exclude you from voting.

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I must be conflating my experience at work with the paid version of Google Docs and thought it was part of the free features:

https://support.google.com/docs/answer/190843?hl=en&co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop#zippy=%2Csee-who-changed-a-part-of-a-document-in-google-docs

[EDIT]: Though it does look like Microsoft’s Word OnLine version supports version tracking

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Google Docs shows version tracking, it’s just in that sub-menu, and not shown alongside the concurrent document:
image

The dropdown menu shows the changes in more detail and is actually sorted by person and whatnot.

Additionally, even if everyone had the paid version, how would clicking the show editors button show anything? The word example looks identical to how google docs does it.

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They were said before the tournament actually took place, and what they said happened to come true, so that’s why I considered them wise in that moment.

I agree with this, although from what I’ve experienced, there are cases where EPs only accept PDFs of digital documentation, in which case the version tracking within Google Docs won’t be included since it’s just a read-only file in its simplest form.

Completely agree; I also think it makes it more likely to find judging volunteers since there isn’t the hassle of listening to presentations in-person. When COVID-19 was more prevalent in January, some tournaments actually ended up doing this, and the format actually worked out quite well.

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I genuinely dislike writing in journals. The problem is that many times, you’re too busy doing something in your code and your journalist is supposed to write something down: then he doesn’t. Then the next day you look at the journal, see that there is now no space since he’s continued to write, and then there’s nothing you can do. In fact, I lost probably about 100 hours of coding within a month to the mist because my journalist just decided to not write any of it down. The reason is that he doesn’t carw, which is ironic, but the reason doesn’t matter: it can happen to people with lazy journalists, etc. if I had a digital journal, I could’ve fixed our journal, and possibly gotten us the think award. The guy literally gave the journal to our teammate who had never done it before and said “I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Here you go” Ignore if this is very personal, but I do feel that he cost us every single journal award, and so do some of my teammates. Again, with a digital notebook, we could’ve moved past the physical barrier of having to write in pages (which meant we couldn’t fix his mistakes).

Has anyone ever tried Microsoft OneNote? From what I understand, it’s designed to function exactly like a notebook, and it has a function to insert dates and times although I don’t know how verifiable that really is… might be worth a shot though.

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While I don’t use it personally, I have many co-workers that swear up-and-down how fantastic OneNote is.

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I have access to the Version History feature, but what I’m saying is, it’s not very helpful. You select a version and you get to see that version and the changes made to it. In order to make a notebook that way, you would have to individually print a page from each version to prove that you wrote it on that day. When I open Version History, all I see is a list of versions and names of people who edited that version, and then the version I’ve selected to look at:

Screenshot 2022-04-18 9.59.04 PM Screenshot 2022-04-18 9.56.17 PM

In fact, the Version History is not even a verifiable date, since the dates you see are actually version names, which are – wait for it – editable. Not only that, but the list does not list what page was edited in that version; I could print my notebook and that list, but what does that prove? Only that I edited my notebook on that day, not that I wrote in the page dated that day, or that I wrote what the page currently says, or that I haven’t edited that page since I created it.

Basically, it proves nothing.

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Another question this brings up, are the digital timestamps easily printable? Especially as the notebooks become large, how do you print the verifiable timestamps in such a way that the timestamps are easily reconcilable with the entries they pertain to? Many editor based trackers are geared towards mouse clicks with auto-scrolling (the standard web model), but you lose that when you convert to PDF or print. At least that is an issue we have struggled with. Appreciate the discussion though and hope the REC can be explicit in defining what a verifiable timestamp is with examples of packages allowed so that there is no more ambiguity. Students should have confidence that whatever method they use will be accepted throughout the season at all the events they participate in.

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Hot Take: I honestly don’t think the notebooking criteria in VRC are working as intended right now. In its current form, VRC notebooking is a near unachievable standard for high school students without forging dates and other timestamp information. This level of scrutiny in documentation may be relevant in other engineering fields but for software I really see it as very unnecessary considering that internally speaking, git and project management tools make it very easy to document progress.

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Again, with my priors being “only digital notebooks are accepted”, the notion of needing to print out or display the timestamp on the page is moot.

In my world, judges would read thru the latest version of each team’s “notebook”. Teams that sort high on the list of quality entries, conforming to the rubric, that entries demonstrate the iterative design process, etc. would then get additional scrutiny - judges would peruse the version history. Not necessarily for specific entries on specific dates, but that the “entries” were done over the course of the season, roughly contemporaneously to the events they document.

I think the digital experience could lend itself to novel forms of documentation - many teams like to do Reveal videos, or demonstrate specific features of their robot on YouTube, etc. Allowing a judge to see a recorded physical demonstration, and the evolution of that component over the course of a handful of videos would be really compelling, in my mind.

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I’ll second this. Again, from my seat as a software guy, one of the most precious bits that documentation achieves is “I got a 2 new people on the team joining today, how do I get them contributing ASAP”. I’d imagine a notebook from that frame - the judge assesses how well the notebook would allow her to become a contributing member of the team.

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Nooo… don’t take that ability away from me… /s

But seriously, having multiple subdocuments independently timed sounds like it would be much better than having to write everything in order. For example, instead of having 1pg claw, 1 pg drivetrain, (next day) 1pg claw, 1pg drivetrain,
having coherent, continuous sections of the document, with timing independent of the order would be a huge advantage.

As for tools: RECF could also host a slightly modified version of some online text editor that makes it convenient for judges to see time/sort by time.

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