Notes

This page provides links to articles which range from reflections on my early experiences using spreadsheets to implementation of the SAMS modules in my and my colleagues courses.


The Evolution of Spreadsheets

Early in the age of spreadsheets, late in the last century, life at the keyboard was fairly simple, and by today’s standards, primitive. Spreadsheet files consisted of only a single sheet, analogous to one page in a ledger, although they could display a handful of graphs. The text-based (not a graphical interface) display was also very simple, and straight forward, as can be seen in the screen shot of a SuperCalc 4 (Computer Associates) screen shown in the figure below. This simplicity meant that the user could master spreadsheet programming fairly quickly, but it also meant that many things we now take for granted in modern spreadsheet programs were not possible.

Picture
Screen shot of a DOS-based SuperCalc 4 spreadsheet. Many of the features of modern spreadsheets were already established in this era, including cell columns and rows that are identified by letters and numbers; edit, status and properties bars at the bottom (at the top of modern spreadsheets) of the screen; and multi-layered menus that are invoked by pressing the "/" key (ALT key in modern spreadsheets). Even the function key F1 is still used to invoke context-sensitive help. (Click to view full sized.)

When working with different sets of data one had to open and close different spreadsheet files because these programs could only work with one spreadsheet at a time. The spreadsheets themselves were relatively small, offering only 8192 rows and 255 columns, but all this seemed quite adequate, at the time.

The current crop of spreadsheet programs can work with many files at a time, and each file contains many spreadsheets. The old concept of a spreadsheet file has given way to a notebook containing many "sheets". The switch from a text-based display to a graphical user interface, first offered in the DOS-based Quattro Pro version 1, offered the ability to format text and numbers in ways that made attractive, professional-looking printouts possible. It also brought new features such as customizable buttons, drop-down menus, toolbars, dialog boxes and status bars. Spreadsheet programming quickly became more fun and more productive, but the learning curve was a bit longer.

Today’s spreadsheet programs offer 500 or more functions, sophisticated analysis tools, database functionality, rich macro programming environments, Internet-based features, the ability to handle large amounts of data, the ability to transfer data and objects (i.e., graphs) between applications and much, much more. Fortunately people will not have to learn to use all of the capabilities of a spreadsheet program. Instead they learn just what they need to get a job done. Most people, it seems, use spreadsheets for only the simplest applications, such as creating simple tables of data and formula that do little more than a little arithmetic, for example, creating a travel budget or a checkbook ledger. Engineers, on the other hand, may use many of the sophisticated math, statistical, financial and engineering functions, the analysis tools, solvers, matrix functions, and many of the graphs. They may enter, import, organize and sort the data, write complicated, multi-cell formulas, and when done export the results using another file format or transfer it to another application. Clearly spreadsheets are one of the powerful and versatile tools on the engineer’s desk.

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Personal Experiences Using Spreadsheets

When I was in graduate school the only software available for performing engineering calculations were programs we wrote ourselves using high-level programming languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN, Pascal and on our programmable HP-41C calculators. Those of us who knew these languages and owned such a calculator wrote all of our own analysis and modeling programs. Those who couldn’t either used our programs or their simple calculators. When spreadsheets such as Lotus 123 and SuperCalc came along we quickly adopted them as our primary data analysis tools. Initially, it was the ease of producing graphs that caught our attention but before long we were using them to import and analyze data from experiments and for modeling materials processes. Because of their ease of use we could also easily teach our non-computer colleagues how to use spreadsheets and we even toyed with the idea of teaching our major professor how to use spreadsheets but decided that we should wait until he could use a word processor. Eventually whole graduate research projects would be condensed into a series of spreadsheets.

Fast forward many years and spreadsheets are still an essential tool in my teaching, research and other duties. I use them almost daily to produce budgets and manage accounts. They provide added flexibility in generating homework problems and in my laboratory courses, and I use them for personal uses such as planning car and home purchases. In the laboratory courses I teach the students to use spreadsheets to perform preliminary calculations in preparation for experiments, importing and analyzing experimental data, and to tabulate data from larger experiments where 20 or more students must contribute and share data. Given my, and many of my colleague’s, experience with and reliance on spreadsheets I find it odd that in these days when computers have been in the classroom for years and spreadsheets have been available for over 20 years that so few students have ever used them. Obviously there is a need to introduce spreadsheets into the curriculum, not as a special course, but as an integral part of existing materials science courses. The SAMS project was undertaken to address this need and to provide a new tool to use in materials science and engineering education.

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