An Important Step in Science Education: Learning to Keep a Laboratory Notebook
Joel wants to be a chemist. Sheila is going to be a great engineer. What could be more important to their education than a microscope or a chemistry set? If your teenager is seriously thinking about a career in science, or needs to take a lot of science coursework in college, then he or she should start learning about how to keep a laboratory notebook.
What is a laboratory notebook? It is simply a written record of the experiments a scientist performs and the results. That doesn’t sound very important, but it really is. A good notebook can be a priceless resource. At the highest level it can be used as evidence during a patent application, to show what inventions were made and when. At the worst, a sloppy or missing notebook can be a career ending disaster. For example, I once worked at a research facility where a young graduate student spent an entire field season in apple orchards performing a difficult and tedious experiment. He wrote all of his information in his field version of a laboratory notebook, as he should. Near the end of summer, while he was loading up equipment, he set his notebook on the top of his car. He then drove forty miles back to the office. When he realized he had lost his notebook, he promptly quit graduate school.
When you first read about how to keep a laboratory notebook, it may seem complicated, especially if you are not quite comfortable with the scientific method yet. Don’t worry, with a little practice it will be like keeping a journal. You might even begin to enjoy keeping good records, and you will always appreciate your efforts in the future.
Here are some tips for getting started:
The basic requirements for a good laboratory notebook start with the choice of the notebook itself. Some companies sell special notebooks designed just for this purpose, but you do not need to buy something expensive if you are just starting out. The notebook you choose should be permanently bound (not loose leaf) and have a hard cover. A so-called composition notebook is one widely available example. If the notebook does not have page numbers, then go ahead and number the pages yourself, in ink.
Get in the habit of always using ink when writing in a scientific notebook. If you are worried about mistakes, don’t be. In fact, you should never erase information or use liquid paper or whiteout. Instead, you should draw a single line through the mistake and write in the correction. Never black out mistakes. You may find you need that information later, if for nothing else than to prove what mistake you made. If you do not like the way you have arranged your data, you can always copy it onto another page in another format. But do not remove your original, simply draw a line through it. This is just a part of keeping a record of absolutely everything you did. Careers have been ruined over the suggestion that data was later changed or manipulated.
Always start the notebook with your name, address and phone number. This will facilitate its return should you loose it.
What do you write? This will vary somewhat with whether you are taking a class or keeping your own records. Instructors often have very specific ideas about what they want to see in a notebook. It always pays to read their directions closely and get clarification, if needed. If you are working on your own, then try keeping a journal of your observations, and later experiments, if you chose to perform them.
Personally, I like to see not only the experiment, but the facts and ideas that lead to the experiment. If you record the background information, from both coursework and books, you will be able to re-construct your train of thought at a later date. You do not need to make an elaborate literature review, but a concise summary of the facts will be helpful. For example, if you are going to do an experiment on photosynthesis, you might want to write down the definition of photosynthesis, the chemical equation, etc.
Then state the purpose of the experiment and a detailed hypothesis to be tested. If you cannot think of the purpose or hypothesis, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your experiment. What needs to be clarified and is this experiment going to do that?
Next you need to write down the procedure you used, or “methods.” Pretend you are telling someone else how to do the experiment so that they could get similar results. Write down everything you do and use, including the manufacturer, size, and model number of equipment used. Record where you purchased supplies and how chemicals were prepared. The more specific you train yourself to be, the better results you will get.
While you are performing the experiment, write down observations, such as “The fluid turned yellow this week and it didn’t last week.” Carefully record your data as neatly and clearly as possible, so there is no room for questions later. Enter graphs and summaries as well. However, do not fall into the “piles of computer printouts” trap. I recently learned of a junior scientist who presented his laboratory supervisor with piles of computer printouts that contained very interesting results. Unfortunately, when the supervisory asked him to teach someone else his technique, he couldn't because he had never written the method down in a notebook. Even after many tries he could not repeat the results and shortly found himself out of a job.
Finally, one of my professors gave me a tip that I always try to follow. He said to summarize your day’s work before you go home for the day, or at least before you go to bed at night. He noted that if you sleep on information before writing it down, often details might become distorted or forgotten. His comment was, “You may have actually observed something or you may have just dreamed you did.” You need to be sure which is the case before your results are presented at a meeting or published in a scientific journal!
Hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of learning how to keep a good laboratory notebook. If you want more information, most college level science textbooks or laboratory manuals discuss how to keep a laboratory notebook (see resource 1). Or you can visit web sites on the Internet on the same topic (resource 2). Do not be intimidated; just get a notebook and start writing!