Mac Lab Report

Graphical Analysis 3 in the Classroom

- 2002.09.05

Graphical Analysis 3 is an upgrade of the long-running series of graphical analysis programs made by Vernier. These folks have been making software for Apple computers since the Apple II days, and indeed their older products are still available, as I've mentioned before to Low End Mac readers. Vernier is a primary reason why Apple IIs and 68K Macs still have a useful purpose in schools.

Unlike many incremental upgrades we see these days, Graphical Analysis 3 is a total makeover that includes important new functions. The old functions are there, too, and past users will have little difficulty adapting. The new functions, however, make GA3 worth the price of upgrading or purchasing. A new copy is $80; upgrading from any previous version is $40. Maybe this seems like a high price for a piece of software you may think is already built into your favorite spreadsheet, but there are two important considerations to make the purchase worthwhile.

First, a school and student site license is included (with all Vernier software), so you can send a copy home with students who don't have Office installed and be completely legal about it. Vernier has the most generous site license of any software vendor I've ever seen. That alone would be worth the price of the software.

Second, GA3 has important functions not available in MS Office or AppleWorks.

For example, GA3 lets you import data directly from a TI calculator. It also lets you superimpose several graph curves on top of each other. Either column can be X or Y data, which is difficult to manage with Excel and impossible in AppleWorks. You can now plot columns upside down, which is important for several traditional graph forms in astronomy, such as Hertzprung-Russell diagrams. In Excel, reversing the graph scale is a major operation involving several tabbed windows and many clicks. In GA3, you just switch from auto to manual scaling and type in the scale limits you want, even if the top one is numerically less than the bottom. Try that in Excel, and you're left trying to figure out why your labeled axis suddenly popped up to the top of the graph. (You can move the axis down in Excel; it's just harder to do.)

GA3 boasts a series of improvements. These are detailed on the web site, but some of the more important ones are:

  • Supports USB calculator import for Macintosh and Windows
  • Improved features for report-writing - including pagination, graphics, etc.
  • Improved support for the newest computer operating systems - including OS X
  • 100% interchangeability between Macintosh and Windows files
  • Improved import of other file formats - primarily from text files, this is very handy when using data generated in a spreadsheet

The entire look of the output from the program has changed as well. Even in OS 9 it feels more like an OS X product, with professional-looking samples that look like they should be on a science poster session at a conference. The new format supports importing graphics and photos, and the CD even includes photos of all of Vernier's hardware just in case you don't have access to a digital camera. Vernier has changed the program from a multiple-window arrangement to a single-window, with multiple objects on a page. In earlier versions, the data was in a window, for example, that now resides as an object (which can be moved, copied, and resized) on a page. Pages can be added to provide additional room for writing reports. If you have access to a big printer or copier, GA3 would be an excellent tool for generating poster session displays.

Installation is a snap. OS 9 users use a traditional Mac style installer. OS X users (get this) just drag over one folder to your hard drive. First time I've seen an OS X program install more cleanly and simply than an OS 9 program. Other software makers writing for OS X should follow this example and try to resist scattering files all over the hard drive unless it is absolutely necessary. That is something Mac users have come to expect and we lament the necessity of "windowizing" our hard drives for other kinds of software.

If you've never used GA3 before, the first time you boot it, it may seem a little confusing, especially if you're used to spreadsheets. The difference gets at the heart of the distinction of GA3 from spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets were originally designed as business software. That is why the tables are laid out in rows and columns. When you generate a graph using a spreadsheet, students invariably pick the "line" format instead of the "x-y line." In GA3 the default is "x-y line," just as you'd need in a math or science class, not a business class. The difference is that in a "line" graph the two columns are treated as measurements and plotted against the column number. In an "x-y line" graph the first column is x, and the second is y. This confusion doesn't occur in GA3, because it defaults to the type of graph you need.

Also, there's no silliness about putting grid lines for y values but not for x, as occurs with both Excel and AppleWorks. GA3 defaults to no gridlines on either axis, although turning them on is just a toggle away. GA3 is not a spreadsheet; you don't type formulas in cells, for example, but in a column header definition. That may be a little confusing for some students, but once they get used to it, it'll make more sense. This year, none of my students will make a graph without a computer (except once or twice when I'm introducing graphing).

AppleWorks is in dire need of some analysis tools such as curve fitting and best fit line to make it useful in the high school classroom. Excel has these functions, but once again, getting them to actually activate is a chore buried in the menus. GA3 provides analysis tools via buttons just below the menu bar. You can examine the curve for specific values, find slopes, and even compute numerical areas under a curve on the fly, which even Excel doesn't do at all without some risky macros. GA3 doesn't open up your computer to macro virus vulnerabilities, either.

The only problems I had were that the first time I booted it in OS 9, it gave me a type 1 error and crashed without freezing the OS. Trying again worked fine, and it hasn't happened since; I'm fairly sure it was one of those things that just happens sometimes and is not a flaw in the program. The other problem is that the screen layout for the graph, data table, comments, and pictures will not fit on a 640 x 480 screen, a concern for those of us (like me) who have a few older machines in use. I have a 6100 with a 640 x 480 single resolution screen, and if kids use this program on that machine, they'll have to scroll the window around a lot. That's really my only significant complaint with the program, though I don't know how they could have solved it other than the way it already operates.

The previous version apparently had some compatibility problem with Norton Anti-Virus that caused it to freeze when attempting to copy data. This was a problem I had with it in OS 8.6, and I discovered it through systematic experimentation with extensions and using other applications. I've seen no indication of the same problem in this version, although I haven't tested it yet on my older machines. GA3 requires OS 8.1-9.x. A separate version, as I mentioned, is included for OS X.

GA3 is cross platform and maintains file compatibility across platforms as well. I didn't try the Windows version, but the new implementations for OS 9 and OS X are excellent. If you are an individual user, the upgrade price is well worth the money. If not, the $80 is a bit steep, but that terrific site license makes the purchase completely worthwhile even for first time users.

When it comes down to it, GA3 is simply the best tool for the job in a science or math setting. To my way of thinking, the things that make GA3 a desirable purchase are the same things that make a Macintosh superior to a PC; it's all about getting the job done and getting out of the user's way when doing it.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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