Using Overleaf for student papers

In my introductory differential equations course, I assign students to write several papers. I require the students to typeset their papers with LaTeX, and to use graphics imported from Mathematica.

This semester, the paper assignments are:

  • Equilibrium solutions for the logistic model. This first assignment is mathematically extremely simple. The purpose is to give the students experience with LaTeX typesetting, with generating plots using Mathematica, and with paper writing in a technical setting.
  • Comparing harvesting models. In this assignment student compare/contrast two different ways to modify the logistic model in order to account for harvesting. The purpose is to for students to think more deeply about the assumptions that go in to the models and about the predictions that the models make.
  • Predator-prey models. In this assignment students are explore a simple predator-prey system with variable coupling. The purpose of this assignment is for students to discover the bifurcation points of the system, and to interpret the bifurcation in the context of population modeling.
  • Gravitation. In this assignment, students study a small body orbiting a larger body according to Newtonian mechanics. The purpose is for the students to learn how to apply, and interpret, conserved quantities.

In all of these assignments, I want students to become proficient with LaTeX and to develop technical writing skills. I also want the students to become familiar with the process of using multiple pieces of software in order to create a single product.

One of the challenges associated to these assignments is getting LaTeX typesetting software up and running on whatever device students are using. The Mac labs on our campus all have the excellent (and free) TeXShop program installed, but it was a bit of a hassle getting  appropriate software installed on the students’ personal machines.

Fortunately, I discovered Overleaf, which allows students to write and compile LaTeX via a web browser, and to store their papers on a server in the cloud. Thus far, the advantages of using Overleaf are

  • All students, regardless of which machine or operating system they use, are using the same software.
  • Students can access their projects from any machine.
  • I can use Overleaf to share a template (requires this graphic file) for the students to use.
  • Students can sign up for Overleaf using their LC Google ID.

The main disadvantage of Overleaf seems to be that processing speed is sometimes slow. This is due to the fact that the compiling is happening remotely. Thus far, it has not been a large issue.

This semester I devoted one full class day to showing students how to use Overleaf, and giving them a quick introduction to LaTeX. Students also worked through a self-paced module that introduced them to Mathematica. This took place in the computer lab, and seemed to work very well.

A second day was spent discussing elements of writing that are specific to math. This included a discussion of document structure, as well as conventions (not starting sentences with symbols, making all mathematics part of a sentence, etc.).

These two days, together with the detailed feedback I gave on the first assignment, seemed to be sufficient to get most students up and running with LaTeX and mathematical writing.

This entry was posted in Differential equations, LaTeX, Teaching, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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