Powerful Online App Drives Exploration

Last updated: February 7, 2023

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UW introduces versatile online tool that revolutionizes the learning experience

By Ignacio Lobos

When Friedrich Knuth registered for a geospatial data analysis class during the winter 2020 quarter, he knew it was going to offer him something special: an opportunity to take a class powered by Jupyter Notebook.

Knuth, a Ph.D. student in the UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, learned to analyze complex geospatial data sets as he worked through engaging real-world problems — using the notebook’s tools to estimate the snowpack in Western U.S. states and Mount Rainier, and explore the impact of sea level rise and climate change and associated hazards, among others.

“We used real data from NASA and other sources, including satellite images,” Knuth said. “With the notebook, we could engage dynamically with the data, learning how to process and interpret the results.”

At its most basic, the Jupyter Notebook is an open-source web application that allows users to work with live code and data. But the notebook is much more than just a coding tool, Knuth said. It’s often referred to as a “living online notebook” because users can explain their work more fully with narrative text, videos, animation, maps and other visualizations — and allow others to see exactly how they arrived at a solution.

“With Jupyter Notebook, all you need is a URL, a laptop or any other web-enabled device, and you can get to work from anywhere in the world,” Knuth said.

From a faculty perspective, Jupyter Notebook is much more than just another IT tool. When deployed appropriately in a classroom setting — whether it’s in the humanities or STEM fields — the notebook quickly becomes an invaluable ally for instructors seeking to enhance the teaching and learning experience, said David Shean, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

Shean partnered with UW Information Technology’s Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) unit during a recent winter quarter in a pilot study to test the notebook’s viability in the classroom.

“My primary objective was to teach geospatial analysis concepts and help students learn how to use modern, open-source tools that are becoming ubiquitous in academia and the professional world,” he said. “The notebooks fit that category, and students really took to them.”

Knuth was among Shean’s students who tested the full potential of the notebooks during a 10-week course. Knuth’s verdict: they’re a game changer in education. “It is the future,” he said. “Jupyter notebooks are a great way to learn about all kinds of things.”

Pandemic drives faster notebook adoption at the UW

Because Shean’s class was a resounding success, with students praising Jupyter Notebook, the pilot was expanded to include six other classes in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced practically everyone to remote learning.

In the fall, with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, UW-IT quickly moved from pilot phase to full program, offering a JupyterHub for Teaching Service to the entire UW community. JupyterHub offers a consistent environment for all users, allowing faculty to set up an entire class in advance, and letting students run their Jupyter notebooks from anywhere and practically any device. Learn how Shean set up his class to get the most out of the notebooks.

A JupyterHub is designed for group use. It gives members of that group, such as a class, access to a computational environment and resources provided by an instructor. Everyone in the group can use the same resources in their individual notebooks without having to install or maintain anything.

“The real power and innovation here is that UW-IT is setting up environments in the cloud that simplify everything for faculty who want to use the notebooks,” Shean said.

More than 30 classes — from astronomy to electrical and chemical engineering, to aquatic and fishery sciences, accounting, physics and atmospheric sciences — requested the JupyterHub services this fall, offering about 2,000 students the opportunity to use the notebooks for learning.

“We made this decision very quickly, when about 90 percent of all classes were directed to move to remote learning,” said Tom Lewis, AXDD director. “David’s class worked out very well, and student feedback was positive. We continue to collaborate extensively with others to design the best possible system for our faculty and students.”

Such a wide adoption of the notebooks across multiple fields of study comes at the right time, said Erik Hofer, associate vice president for Academic Services & UW-IT deputy chief information officer. His division works with UW faculty and departments to adopt technology that will improve learning outcomes and advance the University’s academic mission.

Because Jupyter Notebook is an online tool, it’s quite effective for both in-person teaching and remote learning. The notebook is easily shareable and accessible by faculty and students, often allowing them to work together on the same problems.

“We are in alignment with the Office of the Provost, which seeks to expand the adoption of effective IT tools to support data management and data analysis across disciplines,” Hofer said.

“Jupyter Notebook is among these tools. It’s in use worldwide, across multiple professional fields. And as our pilot has shown, when used properly and coupled with other technologies, it’s an effective teaching and learning tool, even with remote classes,” he said.

Why students love Jupyter Notebook

To understand the power of the notebooks, Knuth said it is helpful to look at how a traditional Geographic Information System (GIS) class, for example, is taught at most universities.

“Usually, this involves students physically gathering in a computer lab with licensed software installed on expensive workstations,” he said. “Students depend on both the licensed software and the workstations, which means they must physically return to the lab to work on assignments.”

In such settings, an instructor ends up spending a lot of time helping students set up computers individually. Installing the dozens of open-source software packages and troubleshooting are often cited as a big headache for all, eating up hours of valuable teaching time.

With Jupyter Notebook, the “software is free and open source, so as a student and young professional, I can take the methods that I learned to develop with me anywhere I go,” Knuth said. “I don’t need to own a powerful machine myself, as all computation is done on the servers hosting the notebook. This lowers the barrier of entry for scientific data analysis and exploration.”

Before he started his Ph.D., Knuth worked as a data analyst for the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative, where he hosted educational workshops for young scientists. His tool of choice: Jupyter Notebook.

“The participants did not have to fiddle with getting a Python environment set up on their machine; rather they could jump straight into analyzing the scientific data we provided,” Knuth said. “The same holds true for students participating in a class built on open-source software and handling large datasets. Licenses, computing power, local environments … all these barriers are broken down by administering content via remotely hosted Jupyter notebooks.”

Unlike their paper counterparts, the Jupyter notebooks are very much alive, and highly interactive.

“One of the things that makes the notebooks great is that students write code, and immediately see results,” said Shean, whose students praised the way he taught his class.

“They can interactively tweak, interpret, and repeat until they are satisfied, and this also enables data-driven discovery. The notebooks can be run so that all of the plots are interactive — zoom/pan around high-resolution satellite images or clusters of data points on a chart — which is really powerful.”

And, as Knuth points out, the notebook is a professional tool. Learning how to use one now prepares students to use one in their future professions.

“The notebooks and similar interfaces are everywhere, in every field these days,” Knuth said. “They’re the tool of choice for professionals who routinely explore data and seek to collaborate with others. The basic idea and format is definitely not going away.”

Why is the Jupyter Notebook so powerful?

Researchers use it. Students love it. It makes it possible to combine computational output, software code, explanatory text and multimedia resources in a single document. Read on to see the myriad of ways these notebooks are used.

  • Students in multiple areas of study can use the notebooks to explore and work on a multitude of real-world applications, such as helping a city relieve traffic gridlock, a health department track a viral infection, or a utility reduce operating costs.
  • The notebooks are ubiquitous worldwide, a tool used by professionals to collaborate across multiple fields.
  • Students access their work and share it from anywhere — which is proving valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, with classes being held remotely. All students need is a web browser and an internet connection, and they’re ready to work.
  • The notebooks lower the entry barrier, bringing powerful tools within the reach of more students.
  • Because students use their own laptops and other devices, the notebooks decrease or eliminate the need for expensive computer labs with limited hours of operation.
  • Faculty can provide a state-of-the-art computing environment to their students with none of the hassles of maintaining it.
  • The notebooks are hosted in the cloud, with powerful servers that can handle the computational work and vast amounts of data.
  • With easier and cheaper access to cloud computing, the notebooks are becoming a more viable and powerful tool in pedagogy.