Disordered Array: The Art of Controlling Chaos

Like many academics, Professor James Luscombe lives a life overrun by exams to grade, dissertations to read, committee recommendations to write, research to conduct, students to see, lectures to deliver. It all creates mounds of paper, floppy disks, extra furniture, boxes of unknown origin, and a collection of books to rival Amazon.com. But beneath the chaos, the professor is a productivity machine, and with so much to produce, who has time to get organized?

“If you’re a messy office person,” says Professor Luscombe, “you think that cleaning your office comes at the expense of other things. To be both neat and productive is rare.”

As he surveys his lair of lawless confusion he adds, “I’d like to think there is a neatness/productivity uncertainty principle at work in nature.”

Along with teaching quantum, solid-state, statistical, and electromagnetic physics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, Professor Luscombe is responsible for course development, thesis supervision, and condensed matter physics research—and he serves on a handful of department committees as well as the academic council, a dean search committee, and several Ph.D. committees. The paperwork tends to stack up.

“When I first came here,” he recalls, “this office was already a mess. I asked the department chair to have someone come in to clean it up. He handed me the broom.” Thus began seven years of entropy: Among piles of books and papers are the abandoned possessions of his predecessor (including a 1960s-era turquoise table lamp and a non-functioning electric teapot), discordant computer parts, a box of colored chalk, scattered printouts from Google searches and p'etry Web sites, a worn copy of the I-Ching, and early snapshots of Luscombe’s two children. The office’s only modern technologies are his Apple G4 and Sun SPARC 20. The G4 just recently replaced an old PowerPC 6100; still waiting for setup in a corner collecting dust is an aging Sun Ultra 1.

Despite the fact that Professor Luscombe taught a distance learning course on classical mechanics last winter quarter, his de rigueur teaching mode is the standard lecture using a no-tech whiteboard. He would prefer a chalkboard. He d'esn’t use PowerPoint presentations or animated simulations, d'esn’t post lecture notes or course syllabi on the Internet, d'esn’t own a laptop, PDA, or cell phone. But his passion for physics and penchant for analogy earned Professor Luscombe Outstanding Instructional Performance in 1997, and in an annual campus-wide survey, students consistently rank him in the top 5 percent of faculty for teaching.

Luscombe is living proof that you don't need technology to be a good teacher and a productive academic. But can you convince a dyed-in-the-wool technophobe that—with a few choice technology tools—he could be even more productive than he already is? Syllabus paid a visit to Professor Luscombe’s office to find out. We began by firing up the G4 and setting up a personal Web site for his fall semester courses on electromagnetic waves. He posted his syllabi, created links to favorite physics Web sites, and—using Update Computer Services’ HTML2EXE 2. 2—we showed Dr. Luscombe how to capture key pages from his Web site, organize them into unit lessons, and publish them into an e-book for students to download onto their desktops, laptops, or PDAs. Using an Elmo HV 3000 document camera and a Visioneer Strobe Pro, he scanned lecture notes and still images of 3D models into his computer to be posted on the Web site. And with the Canon Optura DV camcorder and the Kaidan 3D Imaging Kit, we created animations of rotating 3D models and demonstrations of physics simulations.

When students come into the office with a question, Professor Luscombe often uses the whiteboard in his office to sketch out equations. With the SmartBoard electronic whiteboard and an LCD projector, he can now import and browse through a Web site while scribbling equations—all of which are then captured as individual screen shots and sent back to the computer to be posted on his Web site. He could also use the whiteboard as a lecture tool in the classroom.

To keep his material fresh, Professor Luscombe likes to write what he calls “just-in-time” lectures only a few hours before class begins. With his new technology tools, he can post that lecture on his Web site up to 30 minutes before class, providing students with supplementary material for that day’s lesson. As for those sudden inspirations that occur to him during lecture, he can record them for later use with the Canon DV camcorder.

This month SyllabusWeb features a host of tools for enhancing productivity in the office and classroom. From scanning documents and images to create the paperless office, to recording and editing animations, to making presentations, these tools can make even the most Luddite among us more creative and productive. We asked Professor Luscombe if he had been converted. “Just one question,” he asks. “Is this stuff feng shui?”

The SMART Board captures nanotube imaging from the Web via the Sun SPARC 20 computer. Annotations are recorded and captured on the computer’s hard drive and can be uploaded to a course Web site.

The Elmo document camera photographs a 3-D model of the zinc blende lattice, which is sent to the Mac G4 for integration into course materials; documents are scanned with the Strobe Pro onto the Sun Solaris desktop environment where they can be organized into digital files.

Canon’s Optura DV camcorder shoots a 3-D model of a crystal lattice revolving on the Kaidan turntable; Kaidan software installed on the Mac G4 records it for animated models that can be uploaded to the course Web site.

Smart Tools on Campus

  • Connect the SMART Board to a computer, and every touch on the Board will be interpreted by the computer as a mouse click. A presenter can then open, minimize, or close applications, scroll through files, open the browser—all just by touching the Board. The keyboard functions with a SMART Pen or by pressing directly on the Board and/or right click on the mouse (Windows only). Connect the SMART Board and computer to an LCD projector, and a presenter can write, draw, or type over any of the interactive software applications. Then save, print, or e-mail a complete record of everything written, drawn, or typed into the SMART Notebook.

  • Elmo’s HV 3000XG high-resolution 850Kpixel Progressive Scan CCD captures both 2-D and 3-D images with color reproduction. Featuring XGA resolution, it is ready for use with existing data and video projectors for multimedia presentations, and the standard USB port permits users to capture and download images directly to a computer hard drive for storage or manipulation. The camera comes with an onscreen menu, a mouse-controlled electronic pointer, wireless remote control, a 10x power zoom with auto-focus, and 15-frames-per-second capture speed.

  • Visioneer’s Strobe Pro NT integrates paper management software with the compact sheet-fed color scanner. The Scansoft software creates thumbnails of 38 file types, enabling the user to manage all electronic documents and images. Features include faxing, e-mail, and copying. The drag and drop feature allows users to drag a document thumbnail onto the link icon and send it to a variety of applications.

  • The Kaidan-Autolycus DV Object Imaging Kit uses a motorized turntable and SpinImage DV software along with any DV FireWire-enabled camcorder to create 3-D object movies. The camcorder captures a video stream of a spinning object and converts it into a QuickTime VR or a Java-viewable object movie ready to be transferred to a course Web site.

  • Canon’s Optura100 MC takes high-resolution digital still shots as well as high-resolution video. As a digital camera, it offers three shooting modes—video, photo, and progressive photo. Video captures full-motion video for playback on a television, recording each digital photo for six seconds along with audio such as narration or ambient sounds. The progressive photo mode captures digital photos to a MultiMediaCard or a Secure Digital Card. Stabilization operates in both video and photo modes.
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