Teaching in the field

The yearly vertebrate field course is coming up in about a month, and we’ve started some more serious planning for it. One thing I am thinking about is the best way to try and teach people how to use some simple GIS and statistics programs, possibly while in a cook tent in the field, with everyone on their own laptops of every variety. I have been tinking of setting up a small server and local network that everyone can get on as a way to share information quickly, without resorting to swapping usb keys. I had the idea of getting something like a Eee or Acer Aspire One and turning it into a server, and using a cheap wireless router (we have an old one in the lab, but they only cost $25 anyhow) to set it up. I suppose I probably could go without the router, but it might make things easier than also trying to deal with setting up an ad hoc network on the server. I thought that by using something small and low powered like an Atom processor based netbook, we wouldn’t have to worry about power draw or even if it gets broken, as they’re so cheap. As it is, it would only really be used as a file server and not be doing much number crunching itself, so I would think it should work fine (if a little slowly).

Once the server part is set up, I need to get everyone with a copy of R and Quantum GIS on their own laptops. With QGIS everyone can access and view mapfiles I’ll have on the mini-server, and even update things if I want to let them if we find new localities. They can also use their own computers to download any old localities to their GPS units, instead of me doing it all. As for R, We can have an “Intro to R” session and get everyone running the same data set (preferably of something we have found in the field) and then get everyone to even upload their finished results to the server to be marked if we’re really ambitious.

However, if this whole idea doesn’t pan out so well, I’m still playing around with creating live USB keys for everyone to boot into. It’s easy enough to create them now with Ubuntu 9.04, but the only thing I need to figure out is how to get it to work with OS X. I thought as well about live CDs with the additional components, but then there is an issue of data permanence, as well as problems with computer speed. As well, if people start showingup with netbooks, CDs won’t work anyhow. At any rate, one of these ideas should work.

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