Notebooks as “dinosaurs”?

With the College Board’s increased emphasis on student inquiry as part of the AP Biology curriculum revision, I am struggling with whether to require my students to keep a written and bound laboratory notebook, as is the practice in industry. The biology department chairman at our local university says that such practice is up to individual professors. Is the lab notebook going the way of the dinosaurs as laptops and notepads are becoming more common?
—Dan, Missouri

We hear a lot in journals and at conferences about science notebooks, but the role of technology is a consideration. I forwarded your question to two science professionals for additional insights.

Rose Clark, PhD, is the department chair and a professor of chemistry at Saint Francis University, in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She also works with classroom teachers as part of a math-science collaborative.

In academics the laboratory notebook is still crucial. Documentation of research/experimental data is very necessary, and written analysis is still a major form of documentation. I do not know of any colleagues in chemistry research that have gone to tablet [computers]. We do have a lot of electronic data on the other hand that has to be saved and stored as part of the documentation of our work. I am sure there is a mix in industry as well. 

In general, as an educator, I think it is critical that the students learn the process of keeping a good laboratory notebook on paper. Taking the time to write in the notebook allows the students time to organize their thoughts.  They also take the time to create tables and organize data since they will not be able to reorganize easily. I would hate to see students not trained to use a paper notebook. Once they get a job they will easily learn software to keep notebooks if needed but learning the process of keeping a good notebook is harder to teach.

Nicole Henderson is a biologist and an associate staff scientist at the Hershey Company.

This is an interesting and timely question. As we stand today, we [those working in research and development] are still using traditional lab notebooks for project work. There is a push currently to move to electronic lab notebooks as part of a “knowledge management” process. [The team is] looking at several systems, but it wouldn’t just be keeping the same information in emails or word docs—it has to be part of a bigger, searchable system. 

Many of us currently in science research and education grew up with hard copy notebooks. But it’s hard to predict what tools our students will be using in their future endeavors, and we want them to be able to adapt to new tools as they are developed. As Dr. Clark notes, having a strong foundation in organizing and analyzing data seems more important for students than mastering a current technology that will itself be soon outdated.

You might also consider how students will access electronic-only lab documents during the year, both in and outside of class. Will they have to log into a school network or document-sharing program to retrieve them? Will they maintain their own copies digitally? How will students access their notebooks in the future (for example, referring to their work after they go on to college)?

Electronic tools do have advantages in terms of communications.  Files can be archived, updated, and shared for input and comments. (I know teachers who are using LiveBinders for students to create electronic portfolios.) As a teacher, I would welcome a way to avoid carrying dozens of student notebooks around to review. I also can’t imagine writing a report in longhand or organizing data without a spreadsheet.

I visited a biology class recently in which the teacher used a hybrid approach. The students were investigating the relationship between salt concentrations in water and the growth of plants. Students on each team recorded their own data in their notebooks. The teacher then guided the students through designing a spreadsheet in Google Docs in which all of the teams could combine their data. The spreadsheet was displayed on the white board as each data set was entered. Right away, students began noticing patterns and anomalies. The class discussion was intense as they tried to explain them.

Whatever hardware and software students use today will probably be extinct “dinosaurs” within a few years. For example, in the 1990s (not that long ago), my dissertation was prepared with software that no longer exists and stored on a 3.5″ floppy disk. I was able to translate the documents into a version compatible with my current technology, but most of the formatting was lost. Fortunately, I still have the hard copy. I also still have my yellowed and dog-eared high school and college science notebooks.

Rather than thinking of traditional notebooks as “dinosaurs,” perhaps we should think of them as “horseshoe crabs”—predating and surviving the dinosaurs, and having a role to play even as other tools become available and relevant.


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One Comment

  1. Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    By way of full disclosure, I am the President and CEO of LabArchives, LLC, which produces a leading web-based Electronic Laboratory Notebook. While originally developed for active scientific labs, we have recently started offering a low-cost “classroom edition” which provides all the benefits of an electronic notebook at below the cost of a paper one. We had a number of both high school and college labs implement LabArchives during the 2011-2012 academic year with outstanding, positive results from both the instructors and student perspective. We welcome you to visit our web site and would be happy to provide additional information to any interested instructors.

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