Real World Digital Notebooks

This is a question to mentors/professional engineers. In your career, when you use Digital Notebooks, how do you do them? What technologies do you use? Do you have any tips?


I’m not a pro, but maybe with digital notebooks I would take a LCD panel and glue it into the binder and have a battery with a 3 ring binder to keep power. This way the chances of the LCD dying are very low, but also it will make it so that you can’t lose a laptop of something. You can also put a rasberry Pi with a custom OS to view the file (such as a typed notebook).

I typically write all my documents in a normal word processor (MS Word/LibreOffice), then print it to a PDF to keep people from editing it. I usually keep the original word documents on my personal drive and only ever share the PDF’s.

My internet connection is having a crisis and i hope i ended up posting all that once, not three times or zero times…

In a manufacturing environment especially large corporate ones you’ll have a database like PLEX that you have your projects split up in.

So you’ll have:

project A
project B
Project C

inside those folders are your CAD files meeting notes, your notes and all of it is version controlled. when you make a change, it date stamps it and save the old copies so you have that historical record Vex wants to have so badly.

where i work now its just a server with a lot of folders, no real control on versions, but we don’t do so much design in what I do now.

I’ll say I’ve never had hand written notes for anything more than today “to do” list.

I’d mostly prefer that Vex note books prepared students for the note taking you’ll need to take in college to survive. Every bit of that was done pen and paper with 3 ring binders. My first year was basically spent perfecting a note taking process, that had i already had that foreknowledge my cumulative GPA would have been a little better.

We also have a share drive with various levels of folders with permissions setup for collaboration on projects.

My philosophy here is you won’t become an engineer until you survive college and the drop out rate for engineering school is staggering. I attribute a lot of that to poor organization and bad note taking. If you think you can make it through college, by just nodding as the professor lectures and not writing anything down, you’ve got surprises incoming. I’ve seen way too many kids flunk out of school half way through with nothing to show, but a pile of debt.

I was one of those kids that could nap through high school classes, not do the homework and still ace the test. High school is easy and I know robotics attracts a lot of kids like i was (and my friends). It’s just not possible to do that in college (for most people).

Everyone keeps talking how these note books are suppose to help prepare kids for the workforce, completely ignoring the fact we should be prepping them for college, and there is no way i was using a bound note book for my lecture notes.

Interesting. What did you use for notes? I used a wire-wound notebook. Otherwise, I would lose pages.

However, your whole thought process on preparing students for college is an interesting one. I went back and read through my middle school engineering notebook last weekend and really saw where they evolved and grew over the year. Of course, they got one year older and more mature but they started off very basic and got a lot better at articulating their thoughts and knowing what to include and what not to include. This capability could definitely translate to college and beyond.

a mixture of wire bound and 3 ring binders.

I have all my calculus notes still. they are the “five star” note books single sided pencil notes. I was still referencing those notes by the time i made it to diffy Q.

Other classes were a mix. Sometimes the professors provided “fill in the blank” lecture notes and those went into three ring binders. Classes like physics were like this.

I love that we as a community are trying to prep the next generation of engineers for the workforce, but i don’t think we are adequately preparing them for college with these strict note taking rules. we should allow students to use whats comfortable for them and allow good note taking practices to grow. I don’t want my kids to loathe note taking when it’s what will get them through school. As long as the content of the notes are solid that’s what should matter.

Edit: as a final note.

Let college prepare students for the workforce, that’s why they’ll be paying off debt into their thirties to go there. High school and high school activities should prep students for college as a primary goal, granted lessons learned in high school still make it through to working life.

Engineering documents are created in some kind of word/ spreadsheet/ presentation/ CAD package and uploaded to a shared Sharepoint or Documentum site. They both allow for versions, so you can go back and see what the prior doucument looked like.

Some places use custom Wordpress, Confluenece, etc. types of tools to do the same thing. (I’m seeing people use Git repositories)

I take notes on my laptop most of the time, so I have online copies of the minutes to all the meetings (100’s) that I go to. If the minutes are just reminders for me, they stay with me, otherwise they get posted to the team.

For personal digital stuff I run a wiki that I put text into and can attach files to. Pictures can be imbedded into the page. I have a “bookmarklet” that will put a URL and some comment text into the wiki page. So my thousands of bookmarks are there. About twice a year I have an automated process that walks the wiki and tells me where there are dead links.

I always have my paper notebook for todo lists, sketches, things I run across, etc. It’s easier to pull off the road into a parking lot and make notes. I used to have a recording unit that I’d feed the audio into Dragon dictate, but that ended up to be too hard

i need to do this. My phone mostly serves this purpose, but it would be nice to have a shelf of my life’s notes.

Using git repositories seems interesting, as I already have experience with them. Does a set of markdown documents plus associated files sound manageable/sustainable? For final presentation, I might convert it to a PDF and print it out, just because it would be easier

While these digital revision based notebooks are good to maintain all of the robotics development, how are these meant to be shown to judges? At most competitions and the World Championships we don’t have internet accessibility and most judges do not and are not expected to bring their personal devices along with them to the competition

Hand written notebooks are much easier to judge and quickly see the changes made and don’t have the judges trying to take care of different pieces of technology for all of the teams showcasing digital notebooks (non printed ones). Handwritten has all of that information available and can be used by anyone.

For anyone planning to not write their notebooks, I must agree: YOU HAVE TO PRINT IT OUT! You must be able to easily present your design process to the Judges.

@MayorMonty Markdown text to format the pages, imbedded pictures, attached cad and spreadsheets, printed out at your nearest office supply store is a great way. You get the best of being agile online and helping old folks like me with dead trees.

Plus with github everyone can see the work, great sharing on your part!!!

Don’t know if publishing your engineering notebook on GitHub is the best idea (maybe after the season is over), but Git has purposes beyond FOSS

Since there have been some mentions of git usage and markdown, I have a couple of points to share on the note.

At the beginning of last season I found that my team’s engineering notebook had become too large to work nicely with Google Docs (the loading times were ridiculous), so I tried to find a better solution for allowing the team to collaborate on such a large document. The best solution I found for this was LaTeX, specifically with Overleaf ( Overleaf allows you to have multiple team members working simultaneously on the document, just like Google Docs, and also allows you to use Git if you want to edit offline (This made downloading images for the notebook incredibly easy). The online editor is quite nice as well.

LaTeX is a rather frustrating language once you go beyond simple word-processing, so formatting can be quite a pain. As such, I have published a template specifically aimed at VEX Engineering Notebook design that can be found here: The README should have all of the info you need to get started with it, and it even explains the other fun additions to the repo like a variety of BASH scripts for formatting PROS code and Git commit logs. An example of its use, the BLRZ engineering notebook for this past season, can be found here:

While LaTeX is far from an elegant language, I’ve come to appreciate the power and flexibility it offers over Markdown or other typesetting languages. Markdown is best left to web-related projects, not printed works.

What did Judges at Worlds and Super-Regionals (VEXU has those, right?) say about your approach? Did they like it?

Printed words for judges need to be simple. No fancy formating just clear, concise sentences that show that you know what your wanted to do, did it, failed at it, made it better and used that better version to win. It’s a simple, compelling story that doesn’t need Comic Sans or the tag.

Good, simple, noun/verb in each sentence. Basic English. Markdown is fine. Remember it’s the words you say, not the font they are in.

We won the design award at both of the qualifier tournaments that we attended, with very positive remarks from the judges. The judges at worlds did not comment at all on our notebook, but I know very little about how the judging process works at Worlds and whether that is actually indicative of anything regarding the quality of our notebook.