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Vol. 7, No. 9: May 15, 2001

Designing Chemistry Applications for the Palm Pilot

by Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal,
Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

As a professor of chemistry, I have long been interested in incorporating new technologies into the classroom and laboratory. When I heard that Palm, Inc., was going to loan Palm IIIx PDAs (personal digital assistants) to UW System faculty who were interested in demonstrating new ways to use the devices, I jumped at the chance. I had already owned a Palm Pilot for about three years and was familiar with the standard applications. When my proposal to use the devices in a chemical instrumentation laboratory was accepted, I excitedly began preparations.

Through the help of my university's textbook manager, I was able to obtain Quick Office (which consists of a word processor and spreadsheet for the IIIx that can be synchronized to desktop Microsoft Word and Excel applications), Palm Stats (a statistical analysis program), and Periodic Table (a chemical element database). The chemistry department supplied padded neoprene jackets to protect each IIIx.

The students were excited when I handed out the IIIx's on the first day of class. I had preloaded the software, my schedule, and the roster for the class. I walked them through some of the basics and it wasn't long before they were quietly absorbed, tapping their way through the various applications and trying out Graffiti, which provides the basic means of data entry through a form of handwriting recognition.

During the first month of lab, the students would pull out their IIIx's instead of their calculators. They would use the periodic table application for calculating molar masses and the statistics application for a quick look at the quality of their data. By now, some of my students have become quite adept at using their Palm Pilots, but for some the initial fascination has gradually diminished. Recently, one of my students told me that she really doesn't like using the device. She finds it easier to use pen and paper to take notes and remember appointments. In talking to her, I think that part of her frustration is that she, like many of the other students, doesn't have her own computer to use to back up and review her data. While I would find it hard to live without my PDA, I do rely heavily on a desktop computer for my day-to-day use.

At this point, I have decided that the applications that the students will find the most useful in the lab are the ones that provide them with some assistance that is not already available. I had initially thought of having the students use their IIIx's to collect their data and observations. I planned on having them beam their data to me at the end of each laboratory period after which I would transfer it the class file server. However for some, Graffiti proves to be a difficult way to reliably enter critical observations and numerical values. They still find pen and paper easier to use. Also, I found the QuickSheet application a bit hampered by the small display and the lack of features. Graphics are very important in my field and I am accustomed to having more control over the display. QuickSheet does not offer the students something that is not readily available.

Probably one of the most useful applications for my students has been one that I wrote, not because it is such a spectacular program but because it was written to help the students with a specific laboratory technique called Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GCMS). GCMS is very useful for determining the identity and amount of the individual components of complex mixtures. Applications range from drug analysis in forensics laboratories to pesticide analysis in environmental laboratories. The difficulty for the students is that when running a sample on the instrument, they are rapidly confronted with an overwhelming amount of information. The application that I wrote helps them sort through the raw data and assemble it into chemical information. During the period that I wrote and revised the application, I would come into each lab period and beam the latest version to one student who would then beam it to others. They seemed to enjoy investigating the newly added features. I am currently working on a second application that will help students work with diluting solutions. I anticipate that this will also be an application that the students find useful, as this is a problem that has vexed many.

Because the department is allowed to hold on to the IIIx's that we have, I am looking forward to finding additional ways to use them. I will continue to explore using them in the chemical instrumentation lab. In addition, I have written a small, in-house proposal with the intent of purchasing a basic water analysis kit for two of the Palms. The probes attach to a IIIx so that it can log the temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen concentration. I would like to have the students in my analytical chemistry laboratory assess their accuracy and reliability, and have the students in my liberal arts environmental analysis course use them for on-site water quality analysis.

For more information about Professor Rosenthal's project, please contact him via e-mail at or by phone at (715) 425-3538.

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