We Created a Tool So Students Can Share Their Work Online to Help Inspire Tomorrow's Researchers

01/06/2016 15:27 | Updated 01 June 2016


Do you remember writing up your science experiments at school? Do you even remember the experiments? My school books are tucked away in the loft of my parents' house and I'd be hard pressed to read my notes even if I did find them. Those experiments were certainly part of what inspired me to go on to do a PhD in mathematical physics and then on to work on the world's first driverless taxi system, but I doubt anyone other than I remembers them!

Today it's different. Today's kids are writing up their science projects collaboratively in the cloud, and publishing them online to help inspire the next year's pupils.

How do I know? During our research, a colleague and I built a tool for collaborative writing and publishing, called Overleaf. We originally built it for our own use in our lab, and in collaborations with our co-authors in universities around the world. Now it's being used by nearly half a million researchers, students, and school kids in over 180 countries worldwide.

There's one particularly inspiring story I'd like to tell - it's the story of the Nano Ninjas, who won an award for the engineering notebook they created and published on Overleaf.


The Nano Ninjas are an all-girl rookie FIRST Tech Challenge team with 15 passionate 7th and 8th graders who built a robot, advanced with this robot through many rounds of the competition, and used Overleaf to record their team's and robot's journey throughout the season.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, teams of middle and high school-aged students have to design, build, and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams' creations.

The Nano Ninjas entered their first competition this year, won numerous awards and made it through to the Super-Regionals round, up against teams with a lot more experience at every stage. The icing on the cake was when they won the THINK award for their engineering notebook documenting their team's journey.

When we spoke with their team coach, Nixon Xavier, he told us:

"The Nano Ninjas' experience using Overleaf couldn't have been easier! Even as middle school students, they were able to create a professional engineering notebook. One great component they loved about using Overleaf was that it was capable of real time collaboration between users, which came in handy for such a big team."

Nixon Xavier, Nano Ninjas Team Coach

Smiles all round with trophies from the FTC League Qualifier Championships.

In higher education, Overleaf is being used at universities to help encourage collaboration and to make it easier for students and researchers to write and submit their project reports and dissertations. For example, in a recent trial at Stanford University, we saw a five-fold increase in use as it was made available across campus, from 400 users before the trial to over 2,000 at the end of the first year:

"The one-year trial hosted by the Stanford University Libraries resulted in the adoption of Overleaf by over 2,000 users who created over 14,000 LaTeX documents. Based on the information from users who filled out a profile, we determined that 60% of users are graduate students, 30% are undergraduates and 10% are faculty, staff, or research scientists."

Helen Josephine, Head of the Terman Engineering Library at Stanford

I'm delighted that a tool we built to help with our own research is now being used by others around the world, and our team is especially proud to have helped support the Nano Ninjas in their robot escapades. Their awards are a great reward for all the effort they've put into their 300-page (!) notebook, and it's a testament to their desire to learn and use a tool such as Overleaf to produce it on a professional level. The Nano Ninjas hope that after using Overleaf they will inspire other teams in the FIRST programs to use collaborative tools for their engineering notebooks and other documents - which is far more than can be said for my old school notebooks!

You can read more about their achievements on our blog, and if you'd like to give Overleaf a try too, you can - it's free :)

All photos provided by Nixon Xavier, Nano Ninjas Team Coach.

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