Notebook Tips

Anyone got any tips for formatting/what goes into the big binder for the notebook? And should it all be handwritten? Anything and everything is greatly appreciated.

Make sure you read the instructions in the front of the notebook, they are pretty helpful. One tip is include lots of game analysis and planning stuff, this will help for design award. Also include lots of pictures including CAD renderings. Always write in pen.

Make sure you look at the rubric to get a good understanding of what judges want (a strong design process). To make notebook judges like you, make it clear that you’re following a design process (have a heads that say “Designing” / “Brainstorming” and “Testing”).

Read the relevant documents. This includes the rubric, as referenced above, but also the Q&A questions about notebooks which are answered by @Tarek Shraibati. There is a wealth of information in his answers.

These tips are, probably, the most important ones:

  1. Write notebook not because you have to, or you just want to win an award, but because you are proud to share with judges results of your hard work or clever designs that you came up with. The right attitude will make the world of a difference.

  2. Stay up-to-date. It is very easy to slip by a week or two, but very hard to catch up.

  3. Finally, I find the following thought experiment to be the best way to decide what needs to be in the notebook and what not: imagine that all of your team suddenly forgot everything you learned from the time this season’s game was unveiled until now (MiB reference anyone?) and you have a very important competition in a couple of days. Until the competition you are locked in the room and have access only to your notebook, robot, tools, and the practice field.

The notebook is your only source of information and have to contain anything that is necessary for you to know: from the game description, strategy ideas, and lessons learned at the past competitions, to the instructions on how to operate, maintain, and repair your robot. The extra credit level would be a variation when you don’t have a robot but only notebook and parts, and need to build, program, and tune the robot from scratch.

I’ve been judging at various competitions and at most of them it works like this:

  • Once notebooks are collected judges take about 40-50 min to flip through the notebooks to note the best before going to the pits. At this point general neatness and presence of the good index makes the first impression. There almost no time to read the text or even open every page in every notebook.

  • You have to have hand drawings, simple but clear to understand, that will catch judges’ attention and convey the most important aspects of your design in 3-5 sec. I have a stack of Post-Its that I would put on the pages that have those (to show to the other judges or talk about the with the team during the interview).

  • Once quick scan of the notebooks is done, judges head to the pits. I try to talk to every team, but with limited time, will make extra effort to find only those teams that have solid notebooks (with multiple Post-Its).

  • At some point mid-day judges meet again to exchange the notes and decide which 5-7 teams to interview in depth for 3-4 judged awards we have to give out. At this point we may read the text on a few pages in the notebooks to see if the content actually makes sense.

  • Then we would interview those select teams. If there was an interesting drawing or table of results from an experiment in the notebook, I will try to ask teams about them to hear more details. Since judges may overlook something important that you have in the notebook, be prepared to reference it by the page number and explain why it is significant.

  • After the interviews are done only 2-4 candidate teams for Excellence and Design Awards will get their notebooks looked at with extra scrutiny. At this point expect that judges could open any page and read any paragraph. If it sounds like BS just to fill the page you may lose some important points that were necessary to get that award. Write down only things that you understand and are important - it is better to have fewer but higher quality pages.

Now a few more specific tips:

  • Maintain a balance between handwritten text, hand drawings, printed pictures, printouts of the tables with experimental results, graphs, and code snippets. Do what makes most sense for tip #3 (from the above). We don’t want you to spend all your wake time writing and drawing everything by hand with tiniest details. Judges want to see that you know how to save time by using modern technology (computers and printers) when appropriate.

  • Make sure to have index with pointers to all important phases of your project: initial game analysis, strategy/design brainstorming, prototype 1, prototype 2, …, competition 1 lessons learned, rebuild #3, etc…

  • For the extra credit you could make a visual index with thumbnail pictures of those prototypes and competition robots, as well as amount of man-hours you spend building them.

  • Include pointers to the latest: joystick controls, Cortex port assignments (for both motors and sensors), pre-competition and pre-game checklists, as well as the code printouts.

  • As @allalex said, include an engineering design cycle diagram upfront as it applies to your activities and try to indicate which phase of the cycle you are in at the moment.

    For example: game analysis, research, brainstorming, designing, building, testing at the practice field, testing by actually competing, discussing lessons learned from the competition, back to the drawing board, …

  • There could be large cycles spanning weeks, or smaller subsystem or component level activities that could complete a full cycle in one or two meetings.

  • If mostly handwritten engineering notebook is you day-to-day log of current activities, then printed design binder or presentation board would represent summary of the latest robot reincarnation and, maybe, some history of how you got there.

  • For example, nobody expects you to manually draw full new copy of joystick control diagram every time you change assignment of one of the buttons. If you have nice printout of the latest controls or pre-game checklists included only in the binder that will work great. You could treat portion of the binder as the user manual for your robot.

Once again, if you are perceiving writing of the engineering notebook in a specific format as some sort of the cruel punishment concocted by RECF, you don’t have to write or print it.

The notebook is there to help you better understand what you are doing as you write it, as well as to give you an opportunity to share your vision and history of your progress with the judges. Do it in a way that makes sense for you and assume that judges are rational human beings and not bureaucrats that will deny your application for Design Award if you are missing a comma on page 145 line 12.

We want you to learn how to think independently and understand what is important first and foremost and not how to follow some arcane handwriting format that few professional engineers are using today.

1 Like

Great advice! Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Alright. Should I print the renderings in color and put them in page protectors or glue them in the page?

Yeah, thanks!
I’ve already won the design award for my notebook that I’m looking to update.
I have a copy of the rubric inside the heavy duty binder we use haha.

Hadn’t heard of that post till now… What a good resource! Thanks.

Wow! This gave me so much needed information. Like Gear Geeks said, thanks so much for taking the time to write this.

What do you guys think of having separate sections of a log of meetings, pictures(CAD generated) with corresponding meetings, an attendance log, game strategies, game rules, and a pre-game checklist? We’re not using the VEX ones but a normal graph paper notebook from Staples. That shouldn’t affect the results in any way, right?

Everyone who posted, thanks a lot! I’m taking all of your suggestions to note.

That said, if anyone else has something to add, feel free to!
Thanks again!

My team spends a lot of time on our notebook and a few things I have learned are:

  • Although handwriting things can be a pain it tends to makes you focus on what your saying and to be more concise
  • Take photos of everything you build. You may not think that small prototype will come in handy, but you may want to reference it later.
  • Label the photos you add
  • Use precise language and don’t write long paragraphs in your notebook- tables and bullet points beat out paragraphs any day.
  • Add in outside resources you find helpful so you can reference them later
  • Don’t be afraid to scratch out words you misspell or drawings you mess up. Although your notebook should be neat and organized it doesn’t have to be perfect (it took us a long time to figure this out)
  • Lastly, write the notebook in a way that is helpful for you. Although you can turn in your notebook and win awards, it is important for your notebook to also be a helpful tool.

Should photos go with the meetings notebook itself or can I glue them into another notebook?

My team only uses one notebook. We use a project management software (namely Axosoft) to record the time we spend when we meet and then use our notebook to write about our projects in chronological order.
When we add to our notebook all we record is changes we make to the existing robot, prototypes we create, brainstorming/problem solving, or code that is written (including photos). We paste the work logs in systematically (taking them directly from Axosoft)