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Fine Tuning the Development Process: An Electronic Notebook

  • By Matt Weisfeld
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The concept of the Engineering Notebook is pretty straightforward; however, I had never seen the concept being implemented in such a professional and elegant manner. That said, as a software developer, I was able to bring a new perspective that could, perhaps, improve upon the concept. Primarily, the idea of moving the notebook from a collection of physical pages, as seen in Figure 2, to an electronic format, made much sense.

Figure 2: Engineering Notebook Page.

Evolution of a Process

The usage of the Engineering Notebook is a powerful technique. The engineers essentially entered everything they did into these notebooks. This was important for many reasons, the least of which was the need to reproduce tests and trials in the course of the product development process. Their pages were dated, and logged with any and all work information deemed important (and even unimportant). Who was to say what might turn out to be important when something unanticipated occurred?

The inherent weaknesses of these notebooks apply equally to any paper-based system. Some of the problems include, but are not limited to:

  • Possible loss of the notebook(s) itself
  • Damage to the notebook(s)
  • Storage of multiple notebooks(s)
  • Organization of the notebook(s)
  • Retrieval of information from the notebook(s)

You may have guessed where all of this is going. Although these Engineering Notebooks are a wonderful and very powerful tool, there is a major improvement ready to be incorporated. These notebooks needed to evolve from a solely hardware-based system (paper and pencil) to a realm where hardware and software coexist. In short, the Engineering Notebook needed to evolve into an Electronic Engineering Notebook.

Electronic Engineering Notebook

Migrating the Engineering Notebooks from paper and pencil to an electronic-based system makes sense on many levels. In fact, the concept is so obvious that the idea itself is nothing new. The issue is that, in so many cases, people do not take advantage of this concept. Everyone knows that computers can store and organize information; however, most people use software systems to organize their work only if their employer provides the system. In short, whereas many people use PDAs in a work environment to store work-related information, they might not think of using it in their home or their classroom. This became evident to me when I moved from the business world to an academic environment.

Using Web Technology

Although I do see many people using PDAs and calendar software, such as Outlook, there is one simple way for people to organize any information that is important to them, whether professional or personal. This is to learn a bit of programming—especially HTML. Just as people learn basic skills in math and reading, a basic understanding of how to organize information electronically, using simple information technology skills, is fast becoming a required industry skill.

It is not surprising that the business community today expects their employees to understand how to use applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, and so forth. As businesses migrate further to the Internet, it will also be very helpful for employees to be able to make simple changes to web pages. While I am not advocating that everyone should be able, or allowed, to make major changes to a company's web site, understanding how to organize information with HTML is a very important skill.

As a new professor, my intent was to integrate some of the industry practices I had utilized directly into the classroom. One of my most important goals was to get all of my students to learn and actively use Hypertext Manipulation Language (HTML). In short, I wanted all of my students to create a web page to organize their classroom information.

An Electronic Engineering Notebook (EEN), which can be implemented as a simple web page, allows students and educators to electronically organize their notes, document their ideas, store clipped newspaper articles and photos, and so on. Although the EEN can apply to basically anything, from a collection of recipes to the stats from your softball team, I will concentrate on how to use it in the context of a classroom.

Creating an Electronic Engineering Notebook serves two purposes. The primary purpose is to reinforce the importance of organizing information. A secondary, but no less important purpose, is to develop rudimentary computer skills. I believe that creating a simple web page is soon to be held at the same skill level as word processing and using spreadsheets. A job seeker who does not know how to organize information electronically will be at a major disadvantage in the marketplace, regardless of whether the job pertains to Information Technology or not.

The Electronic Engineering Notebook is not only important for students, but educators as well. I create an EEN for each class to organize my lectures, notes, labs, assignments, supplemental materials, links to other sites, and the like. When I need to find course materials, I do not have to riffle through file cabinets or the loose materials on my bookshelves.

I also can make incremental changes and/or corrections to my materials in an organized and safe manner. As an added benefit, the material in the Electronic Engineering Notebook is easily transferable to an actual course web site. Perhaps most importantly, I can easily create and maintain backups of all my material.

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This article was originally published on October 3, 2007

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