Implementing Electronic Lab Notebooks (Mellon Project Report)

Fall 2016 was the first time that students utilized an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) in the laboratory component of CHEM 211, Inorganic Chemistry, CHEM. Each student received complimentary access to LabArchives, a commercially available ELN software, through which they recorded all of their data and generated their final laboratory report. This software is accessible from any browser and also has a free app. All ten students in the course had an i-Pad mini they used while in the laboratory through which they added data.

The initial use of the ELN was often challenging for the students. The LabArchives platform was more cumbersome than I anticipated and the technical barriers to utilizing the website, generating new labs, and adding data was often frustrating for some of the students. Some students expressed frustration outwardly but used the assigned software. Others used work-around techniques such as forming a Google Doc with their lab partners and then adding the finished document all at once to the LabArchives platform. At the beginning of the semester I emphasized the need for flexibility and patience as we all collectively implemented this technology, so students’ expectations were usually reasonable.

The objectives for using these ELNs are: (1) facilitate more organized and thorough lab notebooks; (2) encourage more input from all team members; (3) facilitate peer and faculty feedback throughout the semester; and, when coupled with PHY 351, (4) improve interdisciplinary communication.

The organization of the lab notebooks were certainly in flux as students figured out how to use the software. Over the course of the semester, the students’ comfort level improved such that, by the end, they had the process mastered. The organization was, to some degree, dictated by the templates that I provided for the students to use. In this manner, students soon learned expectations and proper layout for recording data through an ELN. The immediate impact of the iPads in lab was the addition of pictures to the notebooks. Students took pictures and video throughout the lab to show the setup, illustrate color and color changes, and describe products.  In this regard, the connectivity of devises made the laboratory experience more similar to their everyday lives. This connectivity and familiarity with digital intersection with experience did make it quite easy for lab partners (i.e. team members) to input data (i.e. observations). In fact, the use of lab partners became almost a necessity as one student would perform the reaction or procedure while the other would capture it on the iPad.

As the students documented their experiences in lab, there was an increase in the expression of enjoyment and appreciation for the experiments. This appreciation was also longer-lasting, as students would remark months later how they enjoyed a particular reaction, procedure, or color change. Students’ attitudes toward the laboratory experience were certainly more positive because of the use of the technology. As far as feedback, the LabArchives platform limited the degree of student input and feedback in generating formal reports for their laboratory. Indeed, my grading of the final products from lab experiments (i.e. the students’ lab reports) was equivalent to past experiences in grading digital documents. Certainly more exploration in terms of how students and I can offer feedback as data are being generated, considered, and formulated into a final conclusion is needed. Because CHEM 211 has not be course-paired with PHY 351, the last goal of interdisciplinary communication has yet to be developed/realized.

The challenges of teaching using new and often emerging technologies requires patience. For students to have consistent buy in, it also requires clear and frequent communication to students of expectations of obstacles and challenges that may come.  Recognizing what life experiences and expectations that students have, especially with how reliable technology is part of their daily practice, helps make a richer experience for them in the laboratory. One of the opportunities of teaching, then, is to identify these aspects of student life which can be incorporated into a classroom or laboratory. I am looking for renewed ways of keeping relevant and engaging without compromising the academic component of the course.

With this being my first semester, my project may not provide as rich a content as those from colleagues with multiple course implementations. One general area from this experience came from seeing the added element of the excitement the students had for using technology. In many ways, this lab experience paralleled the students’ life by making it possible to digitally chronicling events through images. To the student, taking pictures of life as it occurs is normal. Including more such opportunities into other parts of our lectures/experiential learning sessions seems to be a lesson that can be incorporated elsewhere in our curriculum.