Piloting Trello task management app: A review for academics

In many ways, Trello is like Google Keep or Evernote in terms of its ability to have shareable notes, checklists, and save pictures and reference files. What makes it different was its integration with different online applications like Box, Slack, or Google Drive as well as Agile organization integration. https://trello.com

Who might benefit the most from Trello?

Folks working in-between who don’t have task tracking apps already at their institutions but find themselves having to suddenly manage several people and projects: post-docs, museum professionals, small non-profits, early career profs, or advanced grad students done with course work, people working on multiple mid-sized projects (co-authored grants or articles), or are overseeing teams 1 or 2 other people, or working with undergraduates on research projects.

To be clear, the person who benefits the most will be the project leader, but there are additional advantages.

Undergraduates and trainees, in particular, benefit from a structured, check-list approach because it provides clarity in meetings, reference storage, and accountability. As a researcher and instructor, I am always looking for ways to be more inclusive in how I work. With Trello, collaborators are able to ask questions, link drafts, share photos, and re-visit information from the meeting, which may be beneficial to ESL and neurodiverse students. It can be hard for anyone to listen, ask good questions, take notes, and then step away and identify next steps all in a 30 min meeting. The Trello structure makes it easy to revisit tasks and reference materials. I also liked its integration with Google docs for draft sharing and how easy it was to add collaborators outside of my institution.

How did I use Trello?

In the past, I’ve generally juggled 5-8 museum volunteers and students, teaching, collection and lab maintenance, and research. My weapons of choice were Google Cal, a library of yellow legal pad notes, and sheer force of will.  It was not a big operation, but it has not always been a stream-lined. In December 2018, I was seeking to scale up and work with more museum undergraduate volunteers on meaningful research projects that could go on their CVs. These tasks are pretty typical for my field and require more active project management, but I have no formal management training. I was also working two jobs, and trying to move multiple writing and research projects forward. Trello was a free app and seemed like a way to keep all of these things organized.

As a pilot project, I tracked my own research projects, grant writing, and museum projects with 3 zooarchaeology lab undergraduate volunteers, 1 co-author, and 1 graduate student grader. All participants were under 30 and understood that I was piloting this approach. They offered feedback throughout the Spring 2019 semester, and I am incredibly grateful to them. They only used Trello in the projects where they worked with me, and here are the results of my experiences and their feedback. Views are my own, and are not sponsored by Trello.

  • Using Trello to keep track of my personal project tasks was not great, but the app was good for collaborative task-tracking.

I used Trello for six weeks as a work project tracker for my lab duties, but my usage fell after those first six weeks. I had already invested in physical whiteboards and Google Tasks and Keep because of their proximity to my work areas (office, Gmail). Checking an additional app was burdensome. If you are borderline functionally organized, a new shiny toy will not improve your system.

  • Trello’s most useful function was group task and information reference.

I did use Trello steadily, but as a quick agenda-generator. Trello was best at being a shared way of keeping track of things like assignment grading or article draft sections. (“Is this done? Yes? What’s next?). We got the important task stuff organized and out of the way, and could talk about challenges which required in-person discussion. Meetings lasted between 15-40 minutes, and if we wandered off topic, there was the Trello list to bring us back.

  • If your collaborators already have their own system, be prepared for mixed buy-in. Understand that this tool is for you, but others may benefit.

Overall, Trello helped me stay sane, but my collaborators varied on its usefulness. My xennial students loved Trello. My millennial collaborators had mixed reviews and already had their own personal systems. They used Trello reluctantly for task tracking, but they did find it valuable for organizing meetings. My working hypothesis about this difference is that it’s not an age or tech-adeptness thing. The zennials are still figuring out how to organize themselves, and appreciated a structure. The students under 25 liked the Trello format and how easy it was to snap a picture and upload for general reference or leave comments or questions. It became their go-to for reference readings and due dates about the research project. I could post reference links, draft templates, and to-do checklists for them, and we turned out two research posters on time for an undergraduate event with time for me to edit them before printing.

  • Privacy was a problem.

I recommend NEVER using Trello for communication about student issues or grades or sensitive research.  If your board is shared, everyone you shared it with has access to all the cards. I was using cards for specific people on the same board, but if you were invited to a card, it meant you could see the whole board. This auto-share was poorly explained in online tutorials, and is a potential FERPA issue if someone were to use this for task management for TAs and individual student info. If used for these projects, you and collaborators should keep wording vague and task-focused, and make your board/privacy structure with an awareness of these limitations. If you want to keep projects separate, you’ll have to create new boards. I disliked this because the advantage of having all your cards on a board is all your projects visually laid out before you.

  • Storage space and add-ins in the free version are limited.

The free version of Trello is restricted. In a group sharing large files full of reference information, you may hit that limit pretty quickly. Want to integrate with a calendar and Google Docs and Slack? You’re SOL because additional integrations beyond your first add-in cost money.

Take-away: I would use this again, and might even pay for it and wonder if costs could be added to grant requests. People in academics or academic-adjacent jobs don’t get formally trained in project management…but we still have to manage teams and get things done. If you are good-aligned, you probably don’t want to cause yourself or collaborators more misery than necessary. I could see Trello being useful for helping undergraduates and early grad students organize their first research projects and presentations, because it helps the advisor keep track and provide structure.

I can also see it being helpful for managing GRAs and TAs. Apps like Trello can help small groups break down tasks into manageable, trackable chunks, and help store some group references. This app could also scale up (at cost) as project complexity or number of collaborators increase. If you plan to use it, be prepared for Trello privacy issues and mixed collaborator buy-in and plan to consistently use it yourself at meetings.

I am currently piloting multi-project management with a Scrum structure using Trello, so stay tuned!


Working on inventorying and cataloging vertebrate collections at the UA School of Anthropology. It’s sweltering outside (summer, Arizona), but inside reminds me of the arctic. The caribou and sled dog specimens from Binford’s Nunamiut project assure me that somewhere, far away, there is snow.

AAHS talk

I served on the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society as student representative for a year and half, and I rotated out of the position this summer. On the board, it was great to interact with professional archaeologists and avocationalists, all brought together by a deep appreciation for Arizona’s history.

A big highlight for me was to present at the monthly lecture in June. You can check out the announcement.

aahs talk

Phoenix Comic Fest panel 2018

Today, we took on the pseudoscience and assumptions behinds parts of the Paleo Diet as part of the many experts panel at the Phoenix Fanfest. What I learned from fellow awesome panelists from ASU: Basically, not everything domesticated is out to get you, and beans are okay. Human diets vary widely across the globe, and humans are extremely adaptable.

I spoke about pop culture imaginations of “cavemen” and human ancestors and why hunting and meat consumption gets so much attention. Paleo Diet says more about modern values and concepts of health than it does about what our ancestors consumed.

I learned something valuable from the audience, though. Several audience members had lost weight and had changed their lives by following this diet, primarily through the elimination of nutrient-dense foods like processed sugar. Paleo Diet may not be well-supported by archaeological or bioanthropological research on human evolution, but the diet gave practitioners an intuitive, just-so story that motivated them to make major life changes and cut back on portion size and process foods. People’s journeys toward understanding their bodies remain personal and culturally-situated, and I won’t discount how empowered folks felt by this way of eating.

Skeleton pictures!

Skeletal diagrams are a great way to help folks visualize what parts of the animal were actually found at an archaeological site. Over the summer before I left ASM, I had the opportunity to gather and help create skeletal diagrams for the Homol’ovi exhibit at the Arizona State Museum, which opened on December 8, 2017. Half of the skeleton pictures came from the wonderful folks at archeozoo.org, and the rest, I made or altered myself using Photoshop and then Illustrator. Here are a few pictures from the exhibit, which was an enormous project to which everyone at the museum contributed. I feel happy to have contributed a very small part. I’m planning on posting a few of them here or on Wikimedia for open access use. I’ve benefited so much from other researchers and artists making diagrams available through Creative Commons copyrights, and I think it’s important to give back. More to come!

For more about Life Along the River: Ancestral Hopi at Homol’ovi visit the ASM website.

Children's activity sheet
Activity sheet created by the museum’s Community Engagement division using my lynx diagram. Yay, interactive!



Visit to Los Morteros and sun daggers

Tucson is full of great ways to engage with archaeology, but I don’t always take advantage of it because I am finishing up my dissertation. My friend convinced me to get away from the computer and join her on a autumn equinox tour of Picture Rocks and Los Morteros. Los Morteros was a Hohokam village site occupied between A.D. 850 to 1300, and is a large site complete with a variety of middens and a ball court. Picture Rocks is an outcrop just outside of town covered with petroglyphs, some of which help mark solstices and equinoxes. The tour was led by the great Al Dart from Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, and more information about the tour and other tours through out the year are available on the website. Above, you can see some of the petroglyphs and the triangle of light we saw crossing the petroglyph spiral at late morning on the equinox.

Los Morteros is named after these deep ground stone features in the bedrock pictured below. Having read the report, it was a great to finally see them in person.

Ground stone mortars at Los Morteros

Water in the Santa Cruz River

I was taking water samples from around Santa Fe Ranch’s property to establish what the local oxygen isotopes in the water looked like prior to sampling archaeological cattle and sheep tooth enamel from the site. Lo and behold, there was water in the Santa Cruz River, flowing north from Mexico, with some lovely cottonwoods in the background. It was so pretty, I stopped collecting water and snapped a picture. This picture was taken right below the outcrop where Mission Guevavi was built.

I should perhaps mention why this was special. The Santa Cruz is an intermittent, frequently dry river, and very rarely “flows” visibly these days. Decades of drilling wells have substantially lowered the local water table.

Santa Fe Ranch Foundation gave us a place to camp during the three years we held the field school at the site, and they do great work providing environmental and agricultural education in southern Arizona. The P.I.s of the field school were recognized for the project earlier this year. 


Phoenix Comicon 2017 – Science Panels

I was fortunate enough to take part in two science panels at Phoenix Comicon this year, which are part of the 90+ hours of continuing education credit hours offered to teachers at the conference. It was a great experience. Colonialism and invasive species are explored throughout science fiction, and sci fi became a great entry point for talking about current research.

Read more here.