The OpenOffice challenge: can you do what needs to be done?

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Sandra Porter

Okay OpenOffice fans, show me what you can do.

Earlier this week, I wrote about my challenges with a bug in Microsoft Excel that only appears on Windows computers. Since I use a Mac, I didn't know about the bug when I wrote the assignment and I only found out about it after all but one of my students turned in assignment results with nonsensical pie graphs.

So, I asked what other instructors do with software that behaves differently on different computing platforms. I never did hear from any other instructors, but I did hear from lots of Linux fans. And, lots of other people kindly informed me that I could use OpenOffice and that it runs and behaves exactly the same on Macs, Linux, Windows XP, and VISTA.

One commenter, Chris Miller even went the extra mile and made a very nice screencast demonstrating how to use OpenOffice to count unique data. The screencast didn't show the things that I need students to do, but it did give me an idea.

The OpenOffice Challenge

I'm really not opposed to using OpenOffice. I'm just not convinced that it can do the tasks that I need to have done. After 23 years of using Microsoft Word and Excel; I'm not terribly motivated to switch to something if I suspect that it has fewer features and is harder to use.

I really do want what's best for the students, but while, rants in the comment section are kind of amusing, they're not convincing.

I'm a scientist, okay, I need evidence, not anecdotes. Don't give me testimonials, give me data!

So, here's your chance to show me that OpenOffice has the features that I need. If OpenOffice will do what I want, I'll be happy to give it a try the next time I teach this class. If the results look okay and OpenOffice works okay, without too many complications, I'll even make my own screencast of OpenOffice and post it here with instructions.

This assignment takes me about 20 minutes to do with Microsoft Excel 2004 on my Mac. (I guess I'll be using this version for quite awhile, thanks some news from Andy! (commenter 26)).

Now, what do you do?

The contest rules
1. Get a copy of our data here and save the data file as text (okay, you probably already knew that).

2. Parse the third column so that the culture state, biomes, and bacterial genera and species are separated into four (or more columns).

3. Clean up the data.

4. Make a pivot table (or the equivalent) to count the numbers of each genus found in each of the two biomes. You don't need to count the bacteria that live in unknown biomes, we're only interested in the bacteria that were found in the forest and creek.

5. You will probably have to clean up the data again and redo the pivot tables. (This is real life kinds of stuff that we're doing here after all.)

The final table should look like this:


6. Make two pie charts from your pivot table so that we can compare the bacteria that live in the different biomes. Warning: this was the part that almost everyone got wrong.

7. Take screen shots of your pivot table and your two pie graphs.

8. Share the images with me and the rest of the world. You can put them on-line somewhere, like your blog or flickr or something and add the link here in the comment section.

Or, if you have a gmail account, you can open up Google Documents, make a presentation, and insert your images. Then click the Publish tab and put the link to your file in the comment section.

Game on!