App idea to help with reading STEM textbooks (feedback request)post by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2022-07-13T18:28:06.505Z · LW · GW · 8 comments
This is a question post.
Problem: STEM textbooks often reference figures and equations from earlier in the textbook. They usually do this with statements like "the shearing stress τ... may be obtained from the shearing-stress-strain diagram of Fig. 3.30." But Fig. 3.30 might be from 5 pages ago, or even earlier. Many textbooks don't have a list or index of equations, so the only way to find the referenced figure is to search page by page.
How this would ideally be solved: Every textbook would have an e-book version that links to, and previews, referenced equations every time they are mentioned.
Why not do this: Different textbooks identify and reference figures and equations different ways. Many readers of e-books use DRM-protected apps. These make it hard to create a universal solution that automatically identifies and annotates texts to provide this functionality. In addition, building an e-reader with this functionality requires building an e-reader to display PDFs and other formats, which seems very hard.
How I suspect most people solve the problem: Most people probably deal with this more or less like I do. The struggle to be diligent and actually look up the referenced figure. They might try to memorize the information. They also might put it into a list of reference notes containing the equations.
Why these solutions are suboptimal: Trying to look up or memorize information is cognitively and motivationally challenging. Learning dense material is already hard, and this adds to the burden. Taking notes can help. However, this leads to visual clutter when most equations aren't necessary at a given time, or when material that needs to be looked at simultaneously is distributed across different pages of notes. It's not always easy to get the required information into the note-taking system. Some note-taking systems also have trouble managing the sort of information a STEM student might need.
How this new app would solve the problem: This app depends on a "snip" feature, where we take a screenshot of part of the screen. Students would read an e-textbook, and specify in the app a collection of tags under which all new "infosnips" will be categorized (i.e. "Mechanics of Materials"). When it presents a new equation or figure, they take a "snip" of it, including its caption. Either instantly, or at the press of a hotkey, the app uses image-to-text to identify the reference number (i.e. the "3.30" in "Fig. 3.30"), as well as determines whether it's a figure, equation, or table. It checks for conflicts with other "infosnips" sharing the same ID. If no conflicts exist, it then tags and stores the new "infosnip" as an image.
Users can then define and display collections of "infosnips" on boards, akin to Pinterest, in a grid. For example, imagine a user on page 392 of their textbook. In addition to presenting 7 new "infosnips," this page references 3 "infosnips" from previous parts of the textbook that the user already entered into the system during their earlier reading. The user can call up those "infosnips" at the press of a button and add them to the current board, which contains just the material under active discussion.
Infosnips keep track of which other infosnips they're associated with on different boards. This allows users to explore them via a web of relationships. There could be lots of additional functionality on top of this basic image-based system, such as the ability to convert images of equations to text, to annotate "infosnips" with text from the user, to share "infosnips" for a certain textbook with other users, etc. But the core functionality is just to conveniently store "infosnips" and view them in "boards."
My questions for you:
- Have you encountered this issue?
- Has it caused you problems?
- Do you have a better solution?
- Does already-existing software do this?
- Would you be excited to give this app a try if it existed?
Thank you for your feedback!
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