Free Software for Writing Mathematical Equations in a Word Document
I am not sure what the going price per share is for Google stock but their Google Docs tool features so many neat little tricks for teachers and bloggers that it is easy to see why many people have moved to Gmail for their email service. One aspect of Google Docs I have used a lot is their equation inserting tool to create sophisticated equations like the famous quadratic formula.
If you have not created a Gmail account but are interested in expanding your word processing or HTML creating powers, you need to set one up. The ability to share editable documents with others also offers a nice little feature for math and science teachers who want to produce more professional looking slides or class handouts featuring complex formulas for their own use. While you can share these with others as well, you can also obviously share them by emailing them back to your own account to then use for your own purposes.
However, as often seems to be the case with software these days, the latest version of Google Docs did take a step backward when it comes to formula insertion. I am sure that has led many to purchase MathType which is available at a very reasonable cost if you do a lot of this kind of work. But with very modest effort you can make great use of the equation insert tool with Google Docs without expending any funds.
If you already have an existing Gmail account and some Google Docs created, you are very fortunate. You will still have access to the old editor and some great features. If you do not, there are still some things you can do (see below).
Existing Gmail and Google Docs Users
If you have an existing Gmail account, sign in and then go to Google Docs where you will be taken to a screen listing prior documents that have been created or shared. If this window is blank, then you would need to create a new document that will contain the formula or formulas you want to use. We will discuss two options to consider if you do not have an existing Google Doc in our next subsection but if you do have existing documents you can get started right away.
Those account holders wanting to implement the equation insert tool can head over to Prof Hacker at The Chronicle where Heather M. Whitney, an assistant professor of Physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, walks readers through the process using the older version of Google Docs. Her slides are great and she takes the process step-by-step so we will not waste time by repeating her instructions here.
However, the method she provides will not work with the new editor. You can easily tell if you have a Google Doc document that was constructed with their prior editor. If you begin to work on the document you have called up, when you click on the insert tab followed by the equation option, you will get a double window screen that features the two boxes depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. If you only get a single text box for writing your formula, you are using the latest editor and will not be able to use all of the wonderful features Professor Whitney notes.
Below is a screen shot of someone who had an Gmail account but thought they had never used Google Docs. Note the one option sent to her that was a recipe. Because that recipe was created with the older version of Google Docs, this user can edit that existing document utilizing the formula features as described by Professor Whitney. Again, to tell, simply open the document, try the insert equation option and see if you get the two boxes, one to insert an equation and the second that provides the preview. If you get a single box you are working with the new editor.
Unfortunately, the new editor does not allow direct pasting of LaTeX into the box as the older version did (more on LaTeX follows below). For example, Professor Whitney uses this coded format rather than the pop up menu to create the formula for the quadratic equation but trying the copy and paste function in the new editor yields an error statement.
In addition to not being able to paste this code in the latest editor, the new version requires some playing with the tool to get an order of entry of symbols and variables that produces the desired result. Therefore if you know someone with some older versions of a Google Doc, have them forward a copy of a document for the easier process. To do so, they simply need to call up their document and click the share tab in the upper right. The document can then be shared with the new recipient by installing their email address (again, to use Google Docs be sure to forward to the newly created or existing Gmail account). The default sharing tab allows the recipient to be able to edit the document when they receive it – be sure to leave that setting so the person can use the equation editor.
We can’t say enough about this option – if you can get an old edited Google Doc you will be in much better shape.
Creating a New Google Doc
If you are creating a brand new document, you will get a different window than is depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. Instead of two boxes, one where you type the formula and a second which previews what you have entered, you will get a single box similar to a text box. In addition, as you insert symbols or LaTeX code, the formula will morph before your eyes. Initially, it is difficult to get a handle on this as it is not a “what you see is what get look” when entering.
When clicked, the equation editor will pop up and five smaller rectangles will appear with a few basic symbols displayed. You can use these symbols by clicking on the appropriate rectangle then scrolling to the appropriate term you want.
A left click of the mouse on the first rectangle will yield a pop up menu featuring all Greek letters. To grab the square root symbol, slide over to the fourth rectangle, click once to reveal all possible items you could select, then scroll and click on the square root symbol to start building your formula. You can continue selecting symbols and insert appropriate letter variables from the keyboard to build your formula.
A second option is to use the code associated with LaTeX notation. The code for this format may not be something you are familiar with but thanks to the web and L. Kocbach, you can find a thorough list of them to directly type them in. In addition, the Google Docs help site reveals how each of their available symbols can be written using the LaTeX code.
To give readers a sense of some of the steps, we will create one of the basic equations from physics relating an object’s distance to its initial velocity if the object undergoes uniform acceleration. To create the formula we begin by inserting the basic variables and symbols without any subscripts, i.e. we type in d=vt+at (see below).
To insert our subscripts and add the exponents we work backwards to add them in (unfortunately, we could not consistently insert them as we worked our way through the formula). The basic step is use the underscore (_) to insert subscripts and the Caret or up-arrow symbol (^) to insert exponents. But to ensure the formula holds format I found the need to insert those elements last.
Once we have entered the basic equation we space back to the point directly following the letter v and hit shift underscore. This command creates a space and allows us to insert the variable i as a subscript to represent the initial velocity. To get the factor of one-half inserted we type \frac before the variables at. We then hit the space bar and the \frac disappears (that morphing we talked about) and the fraction bar is created. We type 1 for the numerator, hit the enter key to get to the denominator and then type 2. Our fraction complete, we move to squaring the variable t. We space with the right arrow key to the end of the formula, hit shift ^ and we see the cursor rise to the superscript position where we can insert the 2.
Simple as that we have the formula complete and can then use it for insertion in a word or Google Document.
Unfortunately, we have found that not all of the LaTeX code works with the new editor. Instead of the \subscript or \superscript code commands for example, you must use the underscore (_) and the Caret (^) to create these formats. In addition, it can be a bit cumbersome to get the feel at first for how to insert the finishing touches.
But with a little experimentation, you can quickly determine which aspects do work and those for which you must rely on the Google pop up menus.