Digitial Engineering Notebook, how will you show the judges

Lots of teams are doing digital notebooks how are you planning to share them with the judges?

A hand held device like an iPad would be ideal, and the judges could then pick it up, and flip through it. However, at some events, they do collect the notebooks. Printing out a hard copy is always a good idea.

As sad as it is, I just couldn’t imagine this happening any time soon. In many places they still look down even at the printed documentation in lieu of the handwritten notebook.

While well organised handwritten notebook is usually a good indicator of a team willing to invest a lot of work into the project, having a digital notebook may indicate many things, including teams embracing more advanced and efficient processes.

While doing judging myself, I sometimes had a surreal experience when an otherwise excellent team that had a great robot and could answer any advanced question you throw at them, would be excluded from a short list of Design or Excellence Award contenders.

It wouldn’t matter if they had very relevant test data and knew the subject better than any other competitor. If their notebook didn’t have something as simple as joystick key mappings or one of the team members would stay quiet throughout the interview, they would lose points on the rubrik and with the already crowded field would not even make it to the short list.

Some of the very good teams do not even bother submitting their notebooks, and I don’t blame them. I suspect that they run their operations online and have an extensive set of documents, spreadsheets, and CAD files. They, probably, feel that their time is better spent doing actual design and collaboration online, rather than spending hours doing write up and hand drawings that judges wouldn’t have time to read anyway.

The purpose of the documentation library is to aid the team in their design and build process, and I will 100% agree with Foster’s implied statement that it works much better than paper notebooks for large number of teams.

But knowing that RECF will only set standards easily acceptable to all partners, the paper notebook is still the common denominator. Hopefully, not for too long. Maybe this will help: Go paperless! Go green! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Seriously, though, engineering is to a large degree a process of finding inefficiencies and trying to fix them. But how are we supposed to teach kids be efficient if we force them to do something that has “Inefficiency” written all over it?

I personally don’t find hand writing a note book a tedious or annoying task. I kinda like it, I find it as a way to write down everything going on in my head and recap the day’s events and have it somewhere that I can easily pull out and add too over the course of a school day which I can’t really do with an online one. Now I was taught at early age to use a paper notebook as that is what my dad still uses for his work so I grew up with it but idk. I don’t see any issues with paper ones and they are less likely to get lost or corrupted or the numerous things that can go wrong with an online notebook.

As an engineer, I would grade a digital notebook lower unless there was some way to reliably sign and date the pages. The point of the engineering notebook is to document the design process, - notes, sketches, experiments - in the order they happen and on the dates they happen. If I was judging, I would question if the digital notebook was really done in the order presented. And, if the failed iterations and experiments aren’t included, it would miss the point for me.

I am more in favor of the digital notebooks these days as a secondary item to showcase your work but manifested in printed form for judging. Core design elements should be in the written notebook but everything else can be digital. Prove you did it via paper, manage and communicate as a team using the best means possible.

We are using many more digital communication processes in working today in real work environments and the kids are still waaaay ahead of us. We need to embrace these new mechanisms. But how do we keep the proof these guys did the work?

Old school digital tools - Autodesk Inventor CAD models, Robot C, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, pictures, etc

New tools - Slack, Rally, Github, Google drives/Dropbox, Many photo sharing apps, any instant messenger, Google docs, etc etc

The judges typically get a physical book as it makes the most sense to manage the judging process for reference. So how do we transform from these new tools into the proof of the design process? How can we prove this was not done the night before? How do you show the entirety of the design process? Five+ people and one notebook is not always the best mechanism either to show the entire team’s contributions. Digital tools have time stamps, why are we trusting Google servers change log less than a written thing on a piece of paper? I would trust the integrity of Google more.

These new tools are what are being used in the real world. And isn’t that the main goal? Get our kids good jobs so they don’t move back in after college! Nope. That’s secondary. It’s to best prepare them for the real world and get STEM jobs!

@Tylennis and @TechRobotics1 I don’t disagree with you that handwritten notebooks are perfectly acceptable and work great for many people. But you have to admit that signed and dated engineering notebook tradition is, for the most part, a heritage of the decades of engineering in the patent law environment.

Every time we go to the competition I encourage my kids to look at all other robots, learn tricks from the other teams, and always be willing to share our own secrets and help others to overcome their problems. So when I try to explain them the historical reasons why judges prefer handwritten notebooks, patent related secrecy, etc… there is a little disconnect at best.

We do have a couple of High School teams in our club that have a killer handwritten notebooks, and keep winning Excellence and Design awards every time. And it is no coincidence. Every time I am at the club, those teams are there working hard on the robot, running experiments, trying different things. Each of those teams have members literally living robotics, dedicating to it all their free time.

But other kids are not stupid either. Sometimes I walk by and see them working on some experimental data in the spreadsheet with a very interesting graph. “That’s cool! Did you put it in your notebook?” - I ask. “Nah” they answer and, probably, think “what’s the point of wasting paper and ink, if those two teams have a virtual hold on the awards.”

Now, my MS team is not as experienced and/or motivated. If there is a weekend when a couple of kids could get together and have time to either work on the notebook or run an experiment to plot flywheel velocity vs., let say, battery voltage level, I would prefer them to run an experiment every single time.

The probability distribution is such that, if they run experiments, they are 100% guaranteed to learn something, but if they work on the notebook, there is only a slim chance they will win an award. I am all for them to learn how to be organized and maintain a good notebook, but we have a limited bandwidth and need to be realistic.

Half of the graphs and results in my posts on this forum are based on the experiments that my kids have done (and should have in their notebook). This is, probably, as good of “maintaining independently verifiable signed and dated log” as we could get.

I couldn’t agree more with @Team80_Giraffes on many points. But this one is close to home in particular. If you want all team members to take equal parts in every aspect of the project (and I certainly do), then having a single physical notebook is not the most efficient way of handling things. It is not always possible to have robot, notebook, and all team members in one place at the same time.

More than once we found ourselves writing an e-mail summarizing results of the latest meeting and putting it down into the notebook weeks later (when notebook finally meets a person having time and energy to do it). It is just so much easier to do electronically. Just use speak-to-text app on your phone and you are done in seconds.

I don’t want to get carried too far on this but the basic question is:

What is our primary goal?

Is it to introduce kids to the patent-law-influenced historical aspects of the engineering or
Is it to help them learn how to be organized and effective in whatever it is they are doing?

If second is the answer then format of the notebook is totally irrelevant, but the content matters. But if the answer is the first than we have a systemic flaw in the award system.

I agree completely with technik3k’s points. In the past I’ve always printed out electronic notebooks, and have had a moderate amount of success at winning awards, but never at worlds. I also suspect the robot played a bigger part in winning those awards than the notebook.

I’ve judged before as well as competed, and there’s a huge amount of subjectivity in the judging process, especially since at larger competitions several teams of judges interview separate teams. Individual judges care about different things. Some put an emphasis on design, some put it on programming, some on strategy, and some on teamwork, etc. Likewise, some judges don’t care whether a notebook is printed or handwritten, while others have a strong preference.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Judge A believes that notebooks should be handwritten with signed and dated entries, while Judge B doesn’t care whether it is digital or handwritten as long as it shows a good design process, with calculations, tests, prototypes, and detailed analysis. Judge C has a hard time reading student handwriting, and thus prefers printed notebooks.

Team 1 has a 9/10 printed notebook. Team 2 has a 7/10 printed notebook. Team 3 has a 9/10 handwritten notebook, and team 4 has a 7/10 handwritten notebook.

Judge A is assigned to interview team 1 and 4, while Judge C is assigned to team 2 and 3. Judge A will rate team 4 above team 1 since their notebook is handwritten, and likewise Judge C might rank team 2 above team 3. So the two finalists will end up being the 7/10s instead of the 9/10s before the judges begin to deliberate and discuss the merits of printed vs handwritten notebooks.

This was just a hypothetical example, but the same thing can happen with good design vs good programming, one person teams, or anything else that the judges may have differing opinions on based on their life experiences.

@Owen thank you for the great example. And, since you mentioned it, technik jr has terrible handwriting (sorry kid) and those five entries I was able to get him to do this season … well even me, who knows what they were doing that day, still have hard time deciphering them even with the drawings.

Honestly, beside helping technik jr to feel even more integral part of the team, those entries are only helpful if a specific judge is looking for different handwriting styles without regard to the content of the entries.

And, at the risk of being completely off-topic, let me reiterate:

My goal is to teach kids robotics and STEM but, even more importantly, to teach them to be good community members and look at the other teams as at the friends, partners, and sometimes competitors.

But never look at other teams as a potential counter-parties in the patent litigation. And the way some of the notebook requirements are being commonly explained is not helping me to do that.

Even if that is the way the industry had been operating for decades, if not centuries, it doesn’t mean that this is how we have to teach our kids.

We are here and now teaching our future generation. And it is completely in our hands to prepare them for the future where open collaboration takes much greater share than ever before.

Just a few pics from the judging room this past weekend. I popped in from the scorers table and snapped these. The middle schoolers have really upped their game in the engineering notebooks. You can see by the pages much is digitally done with a bound book inside.

Eventual middle school Judges award winners getting judged

@TechRobotics1 trust me there is nothing personal. But I was taken aback by your answer and didn’t realize until now why. Unfortunately, your view is not unique and is shared by many professionals. We are talking about this as if we were expert witnesses at some patent litigation between two mega corporations.

When I am judging, I don’t see bundles of paper with different degrees of trustworthiness, I see kids behind those notebooks, many of whom I know for a long time.

When I see so much dedication behind those best notebooks, especially handwritten, I could not help but imagine what else those kids could do if they didn’t have to spend so much time doing it in so inefficient manner.

And, maybe I am wrong, and you will tell me it is a good educational exercise for kids to write hundreds of pages, that judges have no time to read, but I feel terrible that they spent so much time on the notebook and I have only enough time to read a page or two.

I am sure most of them are doing that not because they want to get a piece of metal called Excellence Award but because they truly want to achieve excellence and they would love for somebody to read it and listen to them and tell them how good they are.

Now, let me tone down my response, because, you could tell me, we were following this process for years and it seem to be working just fine. But I think it is not fair to force kids, who figured out how to do something in more efficient and contemporary manner, to do it in the old and inefficient way just because we said so.

This is a great discussion and I appreciate the input. Still looking for how you would present a digital archive to a judge for the design and excellence awards. I get that paper is easier, tell me how to do digital. I’ve worked at major companies that have done “Electronic Engineering Notebooks” or “Digital Lab books”, I need to know how to do it here. I’m a poster child for bound, page numbered, signed by witnesses, paper books; but so much is computer driven I need a way to capture that.

One of my favorite teams has an online wiki with meeting notes, design pictures, team pictures, spreadsheets, CAD, etc. I know with the lack of wireless access this isn’t possible at events, but a computer version “should” be. But I’m new here, so I’m looking for input on how to translate that to an engineering notebook.

[Disclaimer: I hate RECF’s insistence on the digital entry requirement for Excellence Awards coupled with their inability to cope with digital records at events. For years now. I often say "I’m building physical robots in the real world with real roboteers to teach the value of things like physics and math that are presented on chalkboards (*) It’s nice you can show it on the computer, but unless you can show it physically crushing an opponent in a match in the real world it’s just a cartoon movie. It’s theory vs practice, and in the real world practice always wins. "

At a recent event I was told by a judge that digital formats were forbidden by RECF. After a brief conversation with the RECF site person (not a happy one for either of us) I was told that I needed to supply a stand alone computer that could be given to the judges. After a longer ( but no less unpleasant conversation) they agreed that the judges would look at the computer documentation on the computer they had brought. While I feel bad that volunteer judges got caught in the middle, I feel worse for the teams that are using current technology to do their work.

This needs to get fixed.

(*) I say chalkboard, but the only piece of chalk I ever see is my Teacher of the Year award that has a length of white chalk mounted to it. Even I now use slides to teach ] (why does the :rolleyes: emotive not work???

This year has been one of the most successful years for us. We have won a lot of awards that are judged by the notebook. We have a 80% typed notebook that is run through Google Drive. The only things that are not typed are our sketches and designs. At our last tournament, the one judge asked us why we type our notebook versus handwriting them. We answered them with " we believe it looks more professional and is easier to work together with." That same tournament, we won the excellence award. I personally believe that a notebook should not be judged by its style, but by its content.

So you print out the Google drive and put it in the notebook?

Any way to print the change log of a google doc?

The whole notebook is in Google Drive, which makes it easier for all of our team members to work on it.

I was still interested in this so I did some more research. Change log reports are a premium Google service but are available for Google Apps for Education. The retention time is not a full build cycle so you will have to take a mid-season report.


Don’t get me wrong. I am fully in favor of using digital tools for design. I would be in favor of a fully digital “notebook” if it had the ability to show a good design process: plan (sketch, calculate), design, build, test, evaluate. In my opinion, that would need some kind of sequential time stamp to show. If it doesn’t have that sequential element, it is a final presentation. That is all I was trying to say. I am going to check out some of your digital solutions!

Yep, that’s what audit logs are for! If it s good for an audit here at work, then I hope it is good enough for a Vex competition.

@TechRobotics1 what you are saying makes perfect sense on the professional level. Some of our teams get it and are ready to play on that level. But majority are not there yet and we need to help them to get to that level without making the climb too steep.

Last year our team’s notebook was quite good for 6th-7th graders. Each entry had date, name of the person who wrote it, few lines describing what we did that meeting and a little drawing or a picture of the robot or a component in its latest configuration. It was short, clean, and told the story of the robot’s evolution.

This year they decided to be more ambitious. Each meeting page would have a TO DO list, description of the activities and lessons learned. In addition to actual build progress, notes from the first two months contained drawings of different brainstorming ideas as well as the those they picked up on the forums.

Needless to say, after first few months they started to fall behind. Part of the team is getting ready to transition to high school and they have a lot of other commitments in addition to VEX. Also, they are growing more independent and rebellious.

For example, last year we had a simple hand drawing depicting joystick key mappings - nothing fancy. This year, when preparing for the first competition, I told them that they need to make one. Instead of drawing it by hand, technik jr spent a couple of hours creating 3D model of the VEX joystick in Blender with floating animated key labels next to it.

I told him that it looks great, but unless it is in 2D and on a piece of paper, judges will not appreciate it. To make a long story short - we went to the competition without any key mappings. In my corner of the universe this season adolescent psychology has as much influence as the flywheel launcher physics.

If last year you could build a good robot without knowing physics in-depth, then this year it is next to impossible to score reliably into the high goal without it. You need to run many experiments and analyse a ton of data.

We had a lot of success using Google Drive this season. Data collected in RobotC debugger goes directly into the spreadsheet on the drive, any team member could then work on it from home, and I could review it and pull the graphs from wherever I am, even using a mobile device.

I would say, that whatever solution we use, if it has mobile access or there is an app for that, it will make things much more accessible and more kids will use it. This, in turn, will give us better chance to teach them to be more disciplined in making those detailed dated entries.