It’s a humid afternoon in the Pivot and Pilot office as we gather on our forest green velvet couch to discuss the project we are working on with Andres Varhola. Undisturbed by the heat, Andres sits comfortably in his seat in a regular t-shirt and jeans. At first glance, he appears to be conducting an ordinary business of writing an instructional textbook and online e-reader for Microsoft Excel, but we learned that his vision and passion for the project suggests extraordinary possibilities for future students.
As a lecturer in the University of British Columbia’s forestry department, he came to a realization that many students had difficulty applying Excel to their work. “It wasn’t advanced Excel that they needed, yet I ended up in many of the labs just doing it for them,” he says. “I was going on their screen to tell them, ‘Okay, this is how you do it. You type this and this,’ and they would kind of learn that way.”
Andres saw this gap in the educational system as an opportunity and he decided that students need to learn basic functions at a time where they could apply it to their other courses, and even their personal lives. “When I decided that students should learn Excel – and learn it well – I found no appropriate textbook for that. I didn’t find anything suitable for what I needed. Most books are simply a collection of tricks; they’re more like manuals, really,” he explains. “So, I ended up writing it from scratch.”
The heart of Excel is the formulas. It’s the first step towards complex programming in any language.
The ‘manuals’ that Andres read through did little, in his opinion, to teach Excel. “They think that they will scare people if they have too many complex formulas,” he says. “The heart of Excel is the formulas. It’s the first step towards complex programming in any language.”
The beauty of Andres’s textbook project is his mission to bring Excel learning into the high school curriculum along with a custom built online e-reader platform. Of course, there will be a physical version, but having the e-reader highlights affordability – something all school boards love to hear – and reduces the weight on students’ shoulders. Literally.
“My mission is for the book to be the golden standard for teaching high school students Excel,” he reveals. Another great feature of the book is the ‘copy and paste’ capability of the longer formulas. He explains, “There’s no need to waste time writing out the formulas one-by-one because the book will dissect them anyway. Just copy and paste it.”
Andres believes that having this course taught in high school will help students prepare for university and their careers. Rather than quickly googling formulas only to forget them soon after, teachers can help the students one-on-one while the book illustrates the purpose of each formula in a step-by-step manner.
When asked where he learned Excel, Andres looks down and laughs. “When I was an undergrad student in forestry in Chile, there was an Excel course, and I did terribly on the first test,” he confesses. “I had always been good at programming in school and I finished my assignments early. I liked programming and I was surprised that I did badly on the first test; it was humiliating!”
He proceeded to take a two-week intensive course on Excel and discovered the vast potential of the program and began using it in both his personal and professional life because it was such a time-saver.
Andres plans to use his book to spread “the culture of using a spreadsheet properly” and help integrate Excel into our everyday lives. With his highly encouraging and light-hearted writing style, learning Excel may finally cease to be daunting to students and professionals alike.
Photos by Gonzalo Villota