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FOSS for students

By W. Dean Freeman on August 21, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Whether you're a high school student or just starting out with your college coursework, the free software community has provided a wide range of solutions to make life easier. Browsing the package repository of my Linux distribution led me to applications for everything from gene sequencing to particle physics, but there are a few real gems I think any student could benefit from, including math and chemistry tools such as TiLP, wxMaxima, Kalzium, Gnome Chemistry Utils, and OpenOffice.org Math.

TiLP

Just about everyone has a Texas Instruments calculator -- I have many myself. One of the great things about TI calculators is the number of programs you can download to them via a PC connection -- applications from calculus to statistics to games. Unfortunately, the company has yet to release a Linux version of its TI Connect software; the product supports only Windows and Mac OS.

However, a free software solution is available. TiLP is a GTK+-based program that supports all models of TI calculators and link cables and can be found in the Mathematics (Universe) repository for users of Ubuntu, LinuxMint and similar distributions.

TiLP's dependencies include a set of modules that enable access to supported devices, as well as instructions for setting the proper permissions for such access. How you invoke the program will depend on your calculator and link cable hardware arrangement. I use primarily a TI-89 and a SilverLink USB cable. TiLP requires you to pass the command-line options to specifying this -- for example, tilp --calc=ti89 --cable=SilverLink.

Once you've done that, the application pops up and allows you to manage the contents of your calculator, install and remove programs and variables, and update the OS. You can also use TiLP to perform a ROM dump in order to use TiEmu, a TI emulator application for the desktop.

I would like to see TiLP include a program editor at some point, but it performs its current functions admirably.

wxMaxima

One of the TI-89 calculator's benefits is its integrated computer algebra system (CAS). However, even that has its limitations. Thankfully, several CAS software packages are available on Linux. One of the better ones is Maxima, particularly when paired with the graphical front end wxMaxima. Thanks to its use of the wxWidgets toolkit, wxMaxima is cross-platform and is available on Windows and Mac OS X as well.

Maxima is powerful, and it can take a while to become an expert user. However, unlike the case with more advanced systems such as MatLab and Octave, beginners should have no trouble using Maxima for classes such as college algebra or calculus, thanks largely to a comprehensive online help system.

One Maxima quirk is that functions are defined using the := symbol, which some of you will no doubt remember as Pascal's assignment operator. In addition, % indicates the use of a constant -- for instance, %pi. Maxima is also touchy about implied multiplication of variables, which can take some getting used to if one is more familiar with, say, a TI-89. Thus, a statement such as 16x+12x will get a response of "Incorrect syntax: X is not an infix operator."

A simple example of a function declaration would look as follows:

f(x) := ((3 * x^2) * %pi)/(2 * x+7)

wxMaxima will then display an output line, with that statement formatted in "pretty print" that is, more or less as it would appear on a blackboard or in a textbook. Then, if I enter f(14), it will return the answer, which is 84%pi/5, as shown in the screenshot.

Kalzium

One of the finest pieces of educational software available for Linux (and KDE-installed systems in particular) is Kalzium, a look at the periodic table of elements. Kalzium's authors have gone above and beyond what one might expect of a periodic table program.

Moving the mouse over any of the elements produces a tool tip, a photo of an element sample (if it can be photographed), and a larger information box on the left. Clicking on an element brings up another window, which displays information ranging from electronegativity to the date of the element's discovery.

Kalzium also includes a built-in chemical calculator, timeline feature, and state-of-matter window. Entering H2SO4 in the calculator will give the breakdown of 2 hydrogens, 1 sulfur and 4 oxygens, with a total molecular mass of 98.0785u. The time line feature indicates what elements where known at what point in time, starting from 1650. Moving the slider to the right reveals more elements. The state-of-matter window shows which state of matter (solid, liquid, or gas) each element is at a given temperature Kelvin, as well as what elements have boiling and melting points around that temperature.

Gnome Chemistry Utils

There are a number of fine chemistry tools for GNOME as well. They can be found as gcu-bin in your distribution's repository and include a periodic table of elements called Gperiodic and a chemical calculator tool.

Gnome Chemistry Utils also has a viewer called GChem3d for files compatible with OpenBabel. OpenBabel provides a framework for representing chemical data, including 3D models of molecules. There is also a 2-D drawing tool called GChemPaint, which is useful for creating diagrams of molecules and chemical compounds.

OpenOffice.org Math

One more tool is Math, the OpenOffice.org suite's equation editor. The markup language is similar to LaTeX, the de facto standard for creating scientific and technical documents. Once you become proficient in ooMath, you can produce accurately marked-up equations for lab reports and papers.

You can do most everything in Math with the mouse, but it is sometimes easier to just type the markup once you get the hang of it. If you wanted to include, say, Newton's second law of motion as a vector differential, you would enter into the bottom half of the Math window widevec F_Net = {d (m widevec v)} over {d(t)}. Math would then display the graphic for it.

The Math package allows you to save equations in OpenOffice.org format, as well as in MathML, which browsers such as Firefox can render natively. You can also export them to PDF. However, you cannot save equations as a JPG or PNG files directly from the program.

Because Math is part of an office suite, you can use it from another OpenOffice.org application. For instance, in Writer, you can click Insert --> Object --> Formula to bring up the equation editor so you can insert an equation directly into your paper or lab report.

Conclusion

Long the platform of choice for programmers and those doing advanced scientific computing, GNU/Linux is also home to a plethora of free and open source solutions for students of many disciplines. Applications such as the ones above provide a solid basis for those starting out in math and the sciences, but by no means make up an exhaustive list of all that is available.

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.221.3.74] on August 21, 2008 08:00 PM
What about software for students not studying math or chem? Nonetheless, your article inspired me to write a post of my own on my blog, The Proliferation of Linux, http://www.proliferationoflinux.org/2008/08/21/foss-for-students/

Thank you for that...

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LaTeX

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 172.17.1.9] on August 21, 2008 08:46 PM
Lean LaTeX as soon as possible. Word Processors will let you down with school/math/science papers in a big way. Learn how to typeset your papers in LaTeX and avoid the mess of WYSIWYG word processing. There is some up-front learning involved, but the time you spend will pay huge dividends as time goes by, especially in college if you write math/science papers. Open source, free, and there are tons of tutorials. If you can do HTML, which is easy, you can do LaTeX.

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Re: LaTeX

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 198.207.0.5] on August 21, 2008 09:06 PM
I second this, especially for engineering students. You might manage to get by without using it as an undergrad, but if you continue to grad school chances are you'll have an advisor that requires any publications (master's thesis, doctoral dissertation) to be written with LaTeX. Luckily as an undergrad I was already using Linux almost exclusively so I had become familiar with using OOo Math syntax (which is so very much simpler than Word's equation editor), so it was a pretty simple transition to LaTeX.

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Re(1): LaTeX

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.169.188.149] on August 22, 2008 12:28 PM
LaTeX is nice in some cases, but it's not as universally accepted as people might have you think. I have lost marks on papers for writing them in LaTeX (I wasn't able to get the font to be Times New Roman, as required). In addition, there are a number of engineering journals that only accept Word documents for manuscripts. I submitted a manuscript in LaTeX, but I had to first write it in Word to edit with my advisor - he, like most professors outside of the math and physics departments, has never used LaTeX.

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Re(2): LaTeX

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.154.191.201] on August 22, 2008 04:48 PM
> I have lost marks on papers for writing them in LaTeX (I wasn't able to get the font to be Times New Roman, as required)

\usepackage{times} ...?

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.86.139.134] on August 22, 2008 12:56 AM
I third the LaTeX pimping. I write my lab reports using Lyx which is a word-processor-like GUI which writes LaTeX.

I'd also mention Gnumeric, which I find to be FAR easier to use than Excel (I'm a Physicist, your experience may differ). Sadly OpenOffice Calc is completely unusable at the moment, since error bars on graphs cannot be taken from a range of cells they have to all be set to the same value from a large-grained scale with an arbitrary (and far too huge) minimum. I haven't run into problems with Gnumeric over the years I've been using it on my course, so I definetly recommend it!

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 83.248.202.180] on August 22, 2008 11:00 AM
And if interested in Maxima, texmacs looks like a great way to go. Allows input and viewing in greek, proper subscripts, etc., all very LaTeX compatable and giving (fairly clean, but imperfect) LaTeX and pdf export. I have just started learning both maxima and texmacs myself, but it seems like a very nice combo. (I will keep LateX for proper reports and articles, but texmacs allows me to "play" with equations and access maxima in a visually appealing way).

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér on August 22, 2008 11:22 AM
I will echo recommending LyX - and TeXmacs, too (http://www.texmacs.org/). While one can create impressive results with LaTeX, it is also very easy to let oneself get lost in the details...

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.117.111.61] on August 22, 2008 01:24 PM
More important than recommending new software is to request software that we need be ported to Linux. I need Solidworks for my studies. If everyone who needed Solidworks would write to the company, it would be ported.

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 134.245.212.61] on August 22, 2008 03:03 PM

Equation as png

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.37.171.52] on August 22, 2008 04:06 PM
To create an equation as a png file with OpenOffice.org, use its "Draw" component. Format the page to be the size of the graphic you want, insert an equation (Insert --> Object --> Formula), then export the file to png format.

Also, I second the suggestion of LyX as an easy-to-use front-end to LaTeX.

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.95.228.119] on August 22, 2008 06:02 PM
Hmm I don't get it. As I've already finished college and used most of FOSS tools for everyday tasks. I can't forgive you you forgot most important and best tools/programs for students. I never tried wxMaxima but TiLp ?? Ok I understand this is a great emulator but not very useful for long numerical computations. Let's start first with programs for numerical computation.

One of the tools most math and probably also computer engineers use is Matlab. There is a version for Linux but unfortunately isn't free. And as always in Linux world there are alternatives. Very good alternative for Matlab is Octave which I used very often in my student years and I still use it but unfortunately on Windows system for work. Syntax for calculation is very similar or equal to Matlab syntax. Another great alternative for Matlab is Scilab. Best feature of this software is that it has some kind of IDE that is very useful. This 2 programs helped me a lot in my student years and I still find them very useful. Last but not least is Python. This requires some more programming skills but it's amazing what you can do with this language. If you load numpy in Python you can create very powerful numerical computations. It supports a lot of functions and syntax is very similar to Matlab. Best thing on Python is that you can with some knowledge of GUI programming and Matplotlib which is a great library create very powerfull programs for analysis. Want to do some online computation of sampled data with let's say databases ?? Just use Python !

Writing math equations isn't very easy task. Especialy if you have to write em a lot. One of the solutions is Open Office Math that is quite good.There are even better solutions . One of them is LaTex but you have to know it's syntax and that could be very time consuming task. Best option for writing math formulas is in my opinion Lyx. My thesis was written completely in Lyx and I've never regretted to start learning this program. It's front end for latex and has very large community.

This programs are powerful tools in science and research environments. I believe there are plenty other solutions but I mentioned those I've tested and used as a student.

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Keeping track of litterature

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 91.16.183.30] on August 24, 2008 12:20 AM
I wonder if it would be worth mentioning tools like Zotero and Tellico. Being a student became a lot easier after having installed Zotero and gotten a decent grip on the sometimes bewildering amounts of books and articles needed for many studies. A truly useful tool that makes adding new entries to ones collection completely trivial.

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Links for educational free software

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 217.114.211.20] on August 24, 2008 08:58 AM

FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.115.21.52] on September 02, 2008 03:04 PM
I have had tremendous success with LaTeX. I don't use it for math or science but I published 12 books with it. Also if you just want LaTeX for equations benefits, try Scribus when the next major stable version comes out. They have designed a way to typeset equations in LaTeX within a frame. As far as LaTeX is concerned, it isn't so great for graphically intensive publications or things like posters an isn't worth the trouble for short documents, but for long mainly text documents nothing else woks as well. And yes, it is as easy as learning HTML and CSS without having to mess with different browser interpretations.

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FOSS for students

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.244.61.189] on September 08, 2008 03:51 PM
.And if interested in Maxima, texmacs looks like a great way to go. Allows input and viewing in greek, proper subscripts, etc., all very LaTeX compatable and giving (fairly clean, but imperfect) LaTeX and pdf export. I have just started learning both maxima and texmacs myself, but it seems like a very nice combo. (I will keep LateX for proper reports and articles, but texmacs allows me to "play" with equations and access maxima in a visually appealing way).You can rate each game here Free games http://www.iplayfreegames.net . We hope to get top games only and hope that you will also give us some good games as you can submit a game of your choice and a game that you like, we hope to provide you with non-stop excitement and hope that when you are bored you will come to iplayfreegames.net

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