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Lab Notebooks

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Journals and log books are used by researchers and writers in almost every field.

  • To make note of "what we do as we do it," we keep a record.
  • To ensure we don't forget what happened on this day, we jot down a quick note.
  • To remind ourselves later of the affect of this agent on that substance, we document.

A quick look at samples from the over 13,000 pages recorded (often in reverse, mirror-image cursive) by Leonardo Da Vinci shows the range of materials that can appear in a notebook - and the ways in which such notes can later be referenced to track a project or idea. A good journal or lab notebook becomes a historical reference for projects and can help shape future research.

 excerpt from a lab notebook

No matter what size project you are working on, you want to make a habit of keeping good records. If treated properly and used diligently, a lab notebook can make a big difference in the process of putting together a final project, a report, or a presentation on results.

When you sit down to write up your project , it will be much easier and less time-consuming if you have thorough and detailed notes of every stage of the process rather than relying on your "memory" of what happened at various points along the way.

Every project differs, so how you approach setting up your book will have a lot to do with your specific project, what kinds of lab-testing you are doing, how many trials you are running, how frequently you measure and collect your data, and even what kinds of background research you are conducting.

There are, however, tried and true practices that can make a difference in how useful your lab notebook is when you get ready to right up your project.

The team of scientists at Science Buddies put together the following set of tips and tricks for using and keeping a lab notebook.

Picking a notebook:


  • No sticky notes! A pile of loose paper or sticky notes won't work for a lab notebook. Use a good quality "bound" notebook, so that pages can't be lost, shuffled out of order, or pulled loose.
  • Page numbers help. Use a notebook with pre-numbered pages or number the pages yourself. This allows you to easily reference data on other pages via page number.


    Tip: Before you start writing in a new lab notebook, go through and number all pages in a consistent location (the top right-hand corner, for example).


Organizing your notebook:

  • Claim your book. Put your name, address, phone, email, or other contact information on the first page. It does happen that notebooks and journals get dropped, accidentally left behind, or lost. A lost lab notebook can be frustrating and can really set your project behind. If you've included your contact information, the person who finds your lab notebook can contact you to give it back.
  • Organize as you go. Label the second page of your notebook "Table of Contents." As you make entries in your lab notebook, write the page numbers and a description of the experiment or data in the table of contents for easy reference later.
  • Neatness counts. All entries should be neat, legible, and complete. Many times you will have to refer back to data that you recorded a while ago. You do not want to be confused by what you wrote because you were in a hurry and made a sloppy entry.

  • Keep it in order. Be sure and date each entry you make in your notebook. The entries should be sequential, but dating entries is standard practice.
  • Beware the smear! Use a smudge-proof pen when making entries. If you make a mistake in your notebook, simply cross it out and initial below the crossed out section.

When and what to write in your notebook:


  • It all counts! Your lab notebook is like a science diary. Write down all of your hypotheses, questions to look up later, and background research. As you are working, write down all your experimental observations or thoughts, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to you at the time. The little detail you don't record might be exactly what you need to know later -- or what will help you answer a teacher or science fair judge's question!
  • Who said that? Write down the names, phone numbers, or email addresses of people you have contacted for your experiment.
  • Never leave home without it. Always have your notebook with you when doing your experiments.
  • Start fresh. Open your notebook to a blank page before you start experimenting during each new lab session. You do not want to start an experiment and then have to stop because you have nowhere to record data.
  • A picture can be worth a 1000 words. Draw pictures of your experimental set-up, experimental results, and so on in your notebook. You can also take photographs and paste them in your notebook.
  • Include the extras. You can add printouts and other documentation. Just remember to tape or glue in the material in the proper chronological location. Tip: Add notes describing the attached data so it is clear later "why" you've included the material.
  • Don't wait. Record data right away in your lab notebook. Don't rely on your memory because you can forget what happened when you performed the experiment.
  • Only in the notebook! Don't be tempted to record data anywhere else but in your lab notebook. Scraps of paper can be lost along with important data.
  • Be thorough. Include enough information about what you are doing so that you, or someone else, could reproduce your procedure.
  • Add it up. Whether you are figuring out how much of a reagent to add or analyzing your data, make sure to do all your math calculations in your lab notebook. This way if something goes wrong later, you can go back and double check to see if you made a simple arithmetic error.
  • Don't jump around. If you need to skip pages between entries for a project, add notes saying where the next entry can be found and where the previous entry occurs.
  • Track edits. If you need to go back to a page to change or correct something, use a different colored ink and initial and date the changes.

Special thanks to Sandra, Michelle, Kristin, and Dave for helping pull together their best tips and tricks for using a lab notebook!


Advanced Recordkeeping

Want one more tip that professional researchers and scientists use? Do not leave large parts of pages blank. If part of a page is blank, you might be tempted to scrawl an unrelated note in the blank space later (or someone else might pick up your notebook and make a note in a blank space). When you finish taking notes during a lab session or after recording data on a given day, draw a diagonal line through the unused portion of the page. This clearly marks any "unused" sections. You'll know later that no data or notes should appear in those spaces as you review your work.


Share Your Tips!

Do you have favorite tricks of your own? Leave a comment to share your favorite lab notebook practices so that others can take advantage of what you're doing right!


26 Comments

Jan Grout
Brookside Intermediate
Friendswwod, TX

TIP: Become familiar with your printer functions. It is very easy to format mini pages of labs or handouts to be taped or glued into student notebooks.

Excellent advice, things I had never thought of to advise my students to do in a lab note book.

Thanks,

Jenny

I am a fifth grade educator and would love to place my name in the drawing, however facebook is the only avenue we have of entering. Our school system does not allow access to facebook and I do not have on my home computer.

I understand this is the age of technology and that most young adults are tech savvy, but I think it is unfair(yet it is your company) to have limited access to various drawings because of this inability.

Hopefully it's just an oversight....that can be corrected.

Thanks for listening,

Dr. Love

Jennifer Martin
Assumption School

Really enjoyed reference of DaVinci's lab books. Students are always entthralled with the backword writing. Would love to have lab books we are trying to improve our science making it a focus of our school.
Thanks

Hi Dr. Love - I'm happy to place your name in the drawing given that you can't easily access Facebook. Keeping the entries all in one place makes it easier for everyone. I've made a note of your name. If you can email me at amy@sciencebuddies.org and let me know the name of your school, I will make sure you are included in the drawing. Thank you. ~ Amy

Victoria Richardson
Bright Discovers Science
Rowlett, Texas

Great advice. I'm passing this along to all my students.

Victoria Richardson
Bright Discovers Science
Rowlett, Texas

Great Advice. I will pass this information along to my students. I would love to be entered into the drawing for the lab notebooks.

Wake Detention School

Loved the tips for a lab notebook but like Dr. Love, I have no access to facebook. May I also email in my name and school info for the drawing?

Science Buddies, I am so glad I found you. We recently had a school-wide science fair and I wanted to do something that really rocked and although I don't teach Science anymore, I wanted my classroom to participate. We decided on the hovercraft science project.....and we won 1st place for 3rd grade. I have shared Science Buddies with our school and Science Coach. Thanks! I would love to win the science journals for my school but if not, that's okay, thanks for being out there. I truly appreciate it.

hey does any one knmow how to solve a rubix cube? its really hard

I've been teaching longer than I care to admit..the tried and true always comes back around though. My lab notebooks from 36years ago still occasionally get taken out for reference.

Gary Kivel
Central Middle School
200 32nd Street
Port Huron, MI 48060

Hi, my school is having a science fair in February and I was wondering if I could get a fun, and attractive project to do. Last year i did "How to make butter" which the kids had a blast, got to eat a tasty snack and got to learn how the people in the "olden" days made their butter. Things people already have done; Solar system, crystallizing, how paper is made out of jeans, and so much more. It would be a HUGE help if I could get some ideas. I was thinking of doing computer science, but neither my mom or dad will let me use their laptops.


~Thanks much,
Tara

Please enter name for lab notebooks for my school.

Plouffe Academy
Brockton, MA

Rhonda Mau
Freedom Elementary
Bradenton, FL

thinks i had nrver thought of to advise my student to do in a lab book.
Thanks,
Nikit.

Thanks for the article. I use interactive notebooks with my students and it sounds very similar to the "suggestions." My favorite component, especially for organized-challenged middle schoolers, is the table of contents. Hopefully, it will be skill they can learn in any of their future courses/careers.

very nice advice good and neet to !!!!

I teach six grade science and have also taught grades 7th and 8th in the past. My notebook tip is that I always have my students make a Table of Contents to have in the front of their notebooks. The TOC tells about the pages that follow, the order in which the reader should expect them, and the page #'s on which to look.
My students love to design and decorate their TOC with artwork from the current unit of study in the notebook. This is just one more way to help adolescent students learn organization skills. The notebook is a big part of my class and it accounts for a grade as well!
Please enter my name in your drawing!
Amy Kosior
Boston Middle School
LaPorte, Indiana 46350

Well im in 7th Grade at Dugway High school,And i was woundering since i just barley came back and im trying to finish my science fair project but my note book i have is not in a note book at all, it's acully typed but im curious what way is better written in a note book or typed into a folder, or is both okay???Thanks :}

Hi Mariah - You raise a very good question!

First, I would say that if keeping a lab notebook is part of your class assignment (or a component required by your teacher or science fair), be sure and check to see if there are specific expectations or requirements for the notebook.

The reason lab notebooks are often a bound journal of the type described in the blog entry is that such a journal offers a few important advantages. By being bound, the pages are all kept together, so there is less risk of loss. (Pages printed and stored in a folder could get shuffled or misplaced.) Another advantage of a notebook is that it is "with you" when you are working on your project. So you can immediately make a note of things you observe, questions that come to mind, problems that arise and so on. If you are going to your computer later to record your work, you might forget something small but important that happened.

Today, there are "Electronic Lab Notebooks," however, and this is and will continue to change the way science project recordkeeping happens. Here is a link to some information on the Science Buddies website about working with an Electronic Lab Notebook (by Axiope); http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/SciF_DocumentinganExperimentwithanElectronicLabNotebook.pdf

Typed OR handwritten, it is great that you are carefully keeping track of your work and project. I wish you luck with your project!!

Amy
Science Buddies

Thanks for the comment......By the way who ever is writing there notebook on the computer i may warn you that some judges will deduct points i just got told that :P so maybe the best way is to have a written science journal......thx amy

What does a lab notebook look like

Arianna - A lab notebook can be any kind of notebook. Our scientists recommend that you use a bound notebook - either a 'composition' notebook (which has a bound edge) or something like a spiral bound notebook.

Amy

Thanks

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