When you have your students make plots of data in your classes, what medium do they use? Do they use a computer program, a graphing calculator, or pencil and paper? Something else? I actually find pencil and paper to be extremely instructive. When I use pencil and paper, it means I have to think about how to draw my axes and what the plot will probably look like before I begin. However, I think we all expect our own students to be a little savvier about computer use than we were at their age (even though they might not be -- they just think they are!). When I make plots for my research I use Processing, MATLAB or sometimes Numbers. I expect many of you have access to or regularly use Microsoft Excel. (I find that most plots produced in Excel look ugly or have incomprehensible labels, or both. However, if you can make a good plot with Excel, go for it! If you don't know what I mean by good, then don't use Excel.)
On the next page of this lesson, you will complete an activity that involves reproducing three plots using the graphing program of your choice. For this course, it does not matter to me what program you choose to use. What does matter to me is that you are able to generate a dataset and make a plot of it that looks adequate for a 500-level college class. So first, you need to figure out which program you would like to use! If you already have a program you like to use, by all means use it. If you don't, or you want to check out some other possibilities, here are some links to other programs.
It is also okay with me if you like to make your plots by hand, but you do have to have some way to submit them electronically. Also, later on in the course you will have to make plots of large datasets and in that case the tedium of setting 100+ points by hand outweighs the instructiveness of that method, I think. So why not bite the bullet and check out some of the programs below.
Freely available programs
- NCES create-a-graph This one is pitched at kids but it got good reviews from former students
- GCalc: Java mathematical graphing system
Open Office The program you want here is called "calc"
- Matlab available via PSU webapps to registered students, so not a solution for your classroom
- Mathematica available via PSU webapps to registered students, so not a solution for your classroom
- Google docs Has a spreadsheet program that can make plots, free and intuitive but still a spreadsheet