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The project display board is how you present your project at the science fair. What goes into a well-organized and effective project display board?

Anatomy of a Project Display Board

For additional information related to doing a science fair project display board (and keeping notes along the way that make the whole process even easier), see the following:

Elmer's Products, Inc. is a proud sponsor of Science Buddies resources for K-12 STEM education.



Science and engineering projects often involve many steps, many trials, many materials, and may take many weeks. Help your students learn critical organization and recordkeeping skills by requiring a science project lab notebook!

Good recordkeeping is a skill that is valuable in many academic areas. The time your students spend making a lab notebook a routine part of their science and engineering project experience may be useful in other classes as well!

The first step of the scientific method may be "Ask a Question," but the first step you might require before your students even think about questions or take the Topic Selection Wizard survey is to get a lab notebook. Keeping a lab notebook is an important part of the science, engineering, or research project process. With a lab notebook as a requirement for even science projects in the middle grades, students who keep a lab notebook gain valuable experience as they learn to organize their research, manage their time, and document all steps of a project.

With many science and engineering project assignments spanning a number of weeks, or even most of a semester, there are lots and lots of details that a student needs to remember about her project. From the project's initial conceptualization or invention sketches, to the exact materials purchased and the experimental design, to the day when a shoot first emerged in a plant biology project or a field of bacteria showed signs of antibiotic resistance, you want to encourage your students to write it all down.

Helping Keep Science Projects on Track

If left to sticky notes and student memory, a lot of important detail about a project may be lost or forgotten, including reasons behind certain changes, specific observations, solutions to problems encountered, and data collected. Students who use a lab notebook may find it much easier to write a final research report, prepare a classroom presentation, or put together a science fair project display board.

Science Buddies "Keep a Great Science or Engineering Project Notebook" resource offers great information to help your students get started using a lab notebook for a science project. By following the recommended tips and techniques, students can quickly get into the habit of documenting their science and engineering projects. They will stay more organized and be able to better negotiate the many phases of the project or of the scientific or engineering method. Plus, if your students are using lab notebooks, you can require check-ins at key points or dates in the process to ensure that everyone is on track, that projects are proceeding as planned, and to intervene or redirect if problems are detected.

Choosing a Lab Notebook

Part of the perennial school supplies market, there are many kinds of lab notebooks available. The standard composition book is a classic and inexpensive option. Its lined pages and durable cover make it an easy option for students, and this style of lab notebook can work well for tracking and organizing K-5 and middle school student projects. But there are other styles of lab notebooks available, some of which are specifically for science and engineering projects. (See our summary of lab notebook styles and recommended users.)

A line of specialty notebooks from Hayden-McNeil, for example, is designed to meet the needs of students working on science and engineering projects—and to make it even easier for teachers to oversee the lab notebook component. These notebooks feature carbonless duplicate pages so that each entry a student makes is also recorded on a duplicate page that can be removed and turned in. While having thirty or more students all turn in a lab notebook once a week can add up to an unwieldy pile of notebooks for a teacher, having students tear out and hand in "copies" of their notebook entries makes it easy and convenient to evaluate lab notebooks throughout the science project process. Even if the teacher evaluation is only a check that students are routinely and completely documenting their projects, the requirement can help ensure successful and on-time science and engineering project assignments.

Hayden-McNeil's duplicate lab notebooks come in a number of variations and formats. Lab notebooks are available for specific areas of science, including life science, environmental science, chemistry, and physics. In notebooks specific to an area of science, handy reference material for that area is conveniently located on the back cover and on the plastic divider (used when making a new entry). The notebooks come in both spiral-bound and hardbound versions, and are available in 50-page and 100-page formats. Other well-thought features include: numbered pages, quad-ruled paper, fields at the top and bottom for labeling and dating, and a blank table of contents for easy organization. Duplicate pages are clearly marked "copy" and are perforated for easy removal.

These specialty notebooks are available online at Amazon.com. Here are a few of the variations:



Teachers and schools interested in purchasing carbonless duplicate lab notebooks can find additional information and request samples on the Hayden-McNeil website. (Hayden-McNeil does not sell directly to students or general users.)

How to Get Started?

If you haven't required a lab notebook as part of your science or engineering project assignments before, consider adding it as a requirement this year. Encourage your students to review the following Science Buddies resources. These resources offer easy-to-follow strategies that can help your students make the most of keeping a lab notebook:

The best way to help your students get into the habit of good recordkeeping and documentation is to clearly articulate your expectations. Do you want the pages numbered? Do they need to date each entry? Is ink required? With the mechanics clearly stated, encourage them to use their lab notebooks! Recording an entry each day for a period of days is one of the best ways to help them make utilizing the lab notebook part of their daily routine. Consider assigning initial brainstorming sessions as a lab notebook assignment to get them used to recording their notes in their lab notebooks. Pre-project assignments like this can also help familiarize students with your expectations and requirements for entries.

Teacher Giveaway: Share Your Lab Notebook Tips!

What tips do you recommend to students? What strategies do you find help them stay organized? What suggestions do you have for teachers who plan to require lab notebooks this year for the first time?

Email a comment to blog@sciencebuddies.org to share your best tip, strategy, or class assignment for using lab notebooks with K-12 students, and we will enter you in a drawing for specialty duplicate notebooks for your class (up to 30 notebooks), courtesy of Hayden-McNeil. Please include your school name, and the grade you teach in your email entry. Drawing open to teachers in the U.S. only. Entries will be accepted through October 18. Only one entry per teacher will be counted. One winner will be randomly selected from all complete entries.

In addition to sponsoring the teacher giveaway, Hayden-McNeil sponsored recent updates to the Science Buddies Science and Engineering Project Laboratory Notebook resource.



Families who gather around the table to eat turn off the electronics, put down their books, pass the salt, salad, or main course, and tune in to one another. With busy schedules carving out the hours of the days for both students and parents, the minutes shared over a meal give everyone a moment to slow down, regroup, and refocus. Working a bit of science into your dinner table talk can be easy—and rewarding for everyone involved.


Compelling dinner discussion isn't always spontaneous! In her cookbook, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, and on her blog, Laurie David includes numerous suggestions for table talk, and the Huffington Post runs a weekly dinner topic column that highlights an engaging news story for family discussion. News and human interest stories can certainly springboard your family's dinner conversation, but with a bit of planning, you can spice up your mealtime talk even more by adding a dash of brain-boosting or awe-inspiring science. You might just increase your family's science, technology, engineering, and math literacy (STEM) one meal at a time.

When you think of "family dinner," you probably aren't alone if some larger-than-life image of a perfect, smiling family comes to mind. Many Generation X parents carry a mental image of family dinner that's a sitcom amalgamation of the Cleavers, the Bradys, and the Cosbys, all rolled into one. Depending on the state of your own dining table, that image might seem to be one of mythic and unattainable proportions, or maybe it's the kind of image that keeps you going as you strive to put in place healthy, happy, and meaningful routines for your family.

For years, the media has depicted family mealtime as a mark of a "happy" family, and nutritionist and child education experts alike have chimed in on the importance of the family meal. Proponents of eating together cite studies that show long-term benefits ranging from academic achievement to healthier eating and better social choices among teenagers. In an age where the family dinner could run the risk of seeming old-fashioned, the idea appears to be alive and well, a reality boosted by the fact that President Obama and his family, too, observe a family meal. Despite busy schedules and the ongoing proliferation of fast food places, many families do have a routine of shared meals, expect members of the family to be home and at the table for dinner most nights, and view dinner as a cornerstone of family interaction.

Steering Table Talk

What families discuss over dinner varies table to table. Some families share stories of school, the team, friends, extended family, or the day at the office. Some families talk about headline news. Some families share a "high" and a "low" for the day. Some dinner conversations are simply free-form or free-for-all. Part of what time together at the table offers is a window for family members to talk to each other. But what happens when conversation wanes? If you want your family dinners to succeed, being prepared with ideas for "table talk" can be as important as deciding what to serve.

Luckily, with a bit of forethought, it can be easy to uplevel dinner table talk into something meaningful beyond, "what's the green stuff in my pasta?" While your meals shouldn't turn into a classroom lecture, family dinner can provide a perfect opportunity to spend an extra five minutes talking about science with your kids. It doesn't take much preparation to bring a wholesome nugget of science or engineering to the table. Do it subtly, as moms do, and your kids might not even recognize that you're charted new territory at the dinner table, squeezing a bit of chemistry or engineering trivia in between the school gossip and the talk of weekend plans.

Pass the Science, Please

These tips can help you find easy ways to increase the neurons firing around the table. Go ahead and share "highs" and "lows." It's important to check in with your kids—and yourself. But with just a bit of a stretch, you can turn "pass the salt" into something that might generate an aha moment, might raise a question about how the world works, might inspire further research or experimentation, or might let your student show off something learned this year. You might even find that science talk leads to some very funny and exciting conversations!

  • Dish Up a Simple Fact: Often all it takes to kickstart a good conversation is a morsel of knowledge you can toss into the air and see where it falls. Our "Today in Science History" posts (at Facebook) are perfect examples of the kinds of bite-sized trivia you can share with your kids at the table. The fact itself may be finite: "this person was born on this day in x year and is best known for y and z." But the discussion can be much more open ended. Often, I tell my kids something about what I learned about a famous inventor or scientist that I've researched to write the science history tidbit for the day. Sometimes, I tell them simply to highlight an interesting biography so that they hear about all kinds of different careers and about people who made discoveries and inventions even as teens or tweens. Did you know that Mary Anning found her first full skeleton when she was only 12? Did you know that Philo Farnsworth was a teen when he first hypothesized the "television"—and he got his inspiration from looking at a field!

    Sometimes, you may find that your students already know a bit about the person or fact you bring to the table. That's great! When I brought up Richter's birthday and asked my boys if they knew what he developed, my fifth grader had his own question. Did you know that Richter got the credit for the Richter scale but someone else actually worked with him? The nice thing about the science history blurbs is that they are short and compact, and yet they highlight a potentially cool person, an area of science, and something of historical significance.

  • Make It a Game: Turning science trivia into a table game can be a lot of fun, especially if you are a game-oriented family or your kids respond enthusiastically to friendly competition and the chance to show off what they know. Dust off the box of Trivial Pursuit cards lurking on the top shelf of your closet and put them to use! Or, try a set of science-themed flash or trivia cards like Prof. Noggin's Wonders of Science. These cards can be perfect for dinner, but be careful if you think you'll just do one or two a day. Your kids might enjoy the game of it and zip through a bunch of cards before asking for seconds. (Note: cards like these may not offer any explanatory info—just trivia.)

    Keeping a book of "must know" science facts on hand can also offer a fresh flow of information. Check out books like 101 Things Everyone Should Know About Science (2006) or Scientific American's Ask the Experts: Answers to The Most Puzzling and Mind-Blowing Science Questions (2003). The Instant Physicist: An Illustrated Guide takes a slightly different, non-Q&A approach, but each statement (and accompanying illustration) is sized just right for raising family conversation. Which books will work for your family may depend on the ages of your students and your family interests, but books like these often pose a question or fact—and then offer a detailed answer or explanation. This approach may work better than simple trivia questions for younger students.

    If science, in general, feels too broad to get you started, consider focusing on a theme, like the Periodic Table. Grab a guide like The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, or the related deck of Periodic Table cards, and start exploring. For kids that like to memorize facts, there are a bunch of angles to master, from the organization of the table to element symbols, numbers, and identifying details. What to do: gather trivia sources, just be careful to look for current sources (or be on the lookout for things that may have changed). For example, a book or game card that still cites Pluto as a planet is worthy of an out-of-this-world dessert discussion. Your kids may even be entertained by hearing about the mnemonic device you learned in school for memorizing the order of the planets—back when there were nine pizzas to serve! Talking about mnemonic devices is a perfect add-on dinner topic! If you have older kids, try having each be responsible for scrounging up an interesting or "new-to-me" science fact on a certain night of the week.

  • Headline News: Make room in your own newspaper reading, news watching, or social media following to stay in sync with science news, events, and discoveries. Knowing that the Venus Transit is coming before it happens lets you talk about it and make a plan for safe viewing. (There's some math to figure, too. How old will you be before it comes again?) When news about arsenic levels in brown rice hit the papers, it was a perfect time to talk not only about the science at hand but about the history of arsenic. Filling your kids in on the notable history of arsenic could prove to be an eye-opening meal starter! What to do: add key science media streams to your social media spots, like Facebook or Twitter, including National Geographic, NASA, Discovery, Scientific American, and Science Buddies. Depending on where you live, be sure and add local sources, too, like KQED QUEST in the Bay Area. Still read the paper paper? Clip interesting tidbits and bring them to dinner!

  • Read Science Writing: Science writers help open up the world of science in ways that illuminate and explain all the nooks and crannies of science. These writers translate and transform research coming from the labs and science headlines from around the world into stories for the general reader. Whether the subject of the story is frightening, awe inspiring, cautionary, or revolutionary, even sharing an opening passage to a well-crafted and engaging science essay can open up all kinds of discussion (and maybe even a vocabulary lesson or two!). Try essays from NY Times Science writers like Carl Zimmer or Carol Kaesuk Yoon, or blog posts from Scientific American, to get a taste of dazzling prose that brings science to life. What to do: print out a paragraph or two, bring it to the table, and have someone read it. See what conversations evolve.

  • Encourage Inventive Thinking: In addition to talking about experiments and results, mix things up a bit sometimes by posing a hypothetical problem. For example, you might ask, What could we create that would take care of "this" problem? Being able to act on the idea isn't a requirement. Just brainstorm what might work and why. Think about what went into coming up with using PET bottles as a way to disinfect water using the power of the sun. It was an inventive solution—and one that can be used to help improve drinking water around the world. Your family challenge discussions can be smaller-scale. A recent Science Buddies success story highlights a fifth-grade student who wanted to create a video game to share with his grandmother, who is blind. Another story features a student who wondered what kind of reusable water bottle she should use to reduce her exposure to germs. Ryan Patterson, one of the science fair success legends profiled in Science Fair Season,developed a robotic glove to help deaf people have more privacy in conversations. Nutshell stories like these can help inspire creative thinking and problem solving, but try tossing out a new challenge. How can we solve this? How could this be improved? What to do: come up with a stash of challenges that require assimilation of knowledge and creative problem solving.

  • Surprise Them: Sometimes the best way to generate discussion is to shock your students with a science fact that seems hard to believe or even impossible. For example, did you know a polar bear's fur is transparent? Or, go really far out: Did you know that a thimbleful of a neutron would weigh as much as a skyscraper? (You might also find this fact written in terms of a number of elephants, which may be more fun to ponder!) What to do: search for fun or odd-but-true science facts you can dole out at dinner. The Library of Congress' Everyday Mysteries section can launch you in the direction of the unexpected when you need to kickstart the science conversation.

  • Know Your Family: Putting more science on the menu doesn't mean you have to be limited to classroom facts and trivia. One way to make science engaging for you and your children as a topic of conversation is to talk about the science involved in their areas of interest or hobbies. An Angry Birds obsession can yield an interesting discussion of video games and physics, and news of a camera body made out of LEGO gives both the photographer and the builder something to ponder. Whether they fly RC helicopters, play the piano, veg out with video games, love detective books, or are amazing visual artists, there are science facts and science angles you can talk about—which will help them learn to find and explore the science that underwrites everything they do! What to do: talk about what they already love, but ask questions that encourage thinking about how things work and why.

Your Own Recipe

The above suggestions are just a few ideas to get you going. There are many, many more ways you can weave science talk into your meals. In a Washington Post article earlier this year, Casey Seidenberg suggests creating a "jar" of dinner table conversation starters. This would be a great way to stay ahead of your family meals and create your own custom blend of science topics gathered from some of the above sources. After a few science game nights, bring out the jar and pull out a science talk starter. Or make pulling a topic the way you kick off each meal.

Whether you are already a family that eats together or think it's worth a try, we know that with a bit of experimentation, you'll find your own perfect recipe for dinner table science success! We would enjoy hearing about your family discussions, what you try, what books and games you find that help keep your dinner talk educational, science-minded, and entertaining. Send your suggestions and stories to: amy@sciencebuddies.org.



Perfecting the Project Display Board

The project display board for a science project may be the last step before the fair, but don't underestimate its importance. Your display board may be one of hundreds on display. You want to make sure it summarizes your project and invites a viewer to stop and take a minute to learn more about your project, research, and conclusions.


Creating a successful project display board takes time, but it's an important step! Our tips, tricks, and techniques help guide you through the process.
Wander the halls during a school science fair, or tour a local fair during public viewing hours, and you will see a range of project display boards. Most of them share a few basic parameters. For example, most use a tri-fold display board. Most will be the same, standard size. There are similarities, but what appears on the individual boards, and how students have chosen to showcase and summarize their science projects, visually, may run the gamut. Some will stand out for their crisp, clean, well-planned execution; some would benefit from a bit of design savvy; some will clearly suffer from a common "end of project" syndrome: too little time invested in the process.

The End is in Sight

Some students really enjoy the visual aspect of creating a display board. But for others, the project display board is not the most fun part of the science project process. It's certainly not the same as experimenting in the lab or testing electronics or physics projects in the garage. But the biggest factor working against the project display board for some students is that its construction mostly takes place at the end of the process. There's been hard work and testing involved, maybe spanning many days or weeks. Students may want to be "done" with the process, and yet there is one more step. It's a final step, but it's an extremely important step. When a student creates a project display board, she is putting together a visual representation of her entire project to share with an audience.

Highlighting Hard Work

One thing students should keep in mind is that a stunning and scientifically sound project, even a breakthrough one, needs to be supported by a compelling project display board. The "full package" mentality counts.

It makes sense, right? The display board is the first impression of your project that attendees will see. It is the chance they get to, in a nutshell, understand what question you asked, what hypothesis you proposed, and how things turned out. If they're captured by the combination of the board and the science it conveys, they might stop to ask questions, learn more, and further evaluate what you've done. They might notice you and your project. If the board lacks the design savvy necessary to garner that attention, you may find that you've lost out, in the end, simply because you didn't do the project and its results visual justice.

Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist at Science Buddies, has frequently served as a judge at local and national science fairs, including ISEF. She agrees that a poor board can spell disaster. "The whole point of a display board is to showcase your project," says Slutz. "The goal is to communicate clearly, efficiently, and precisely what you wanted to investigate, how you investigated it, what your results were, and your interpretation of those results. You can have the cleverest, interesting, and important research, but if you fail to communicate that because your board is incomplete, poorly organized, or hard to read, then you won't walk away with the first place prize."

With the importance of the project display board so clear, why do so many boards fall short of the mark? Many factors come into play. For some students, there's a lack of understanding about what makes a display board effective. For others, there's a lack of time. Whether they wait too late in the process to begin the board, or whether they simply fail to put in enough time to do a good job, rushing the process and cutting corners rarely results in a winning board.

Better Display Boards

Science Buddies has a full section of Project Display Board resources, suggestions, tips, tricks, and examples. Before you create your display board, you should review all of these pages so that you have a good idea of what you want to accomplish with your board—and how best to approach the process. Every student can create a solid display board if they keep certain guidelines in mind:

  • Plan your board. Take time to mock up or "storyboard" your Project Display board on a sheet of paper before you start printing or gluing anything in place. This will help you best determine how to use your available space and how to size the elements you plan to include. Tip: Take time to review the sample layout shown below. Print a copy and make notes to indicate what information you'll include in each section. Make a list of elements you need to type up, or photos you need to print out.

  • Know the size limitations. Most project display boards, like these from Elmer's, are 36" x 48". Oversized boards can be made by taking a modular approach and connecting more than one board, but keep in mind that you don't want your board too tall, too crowded, or with information too low to the ground to read. See Advanced Display Board Design and Tips for more information. Tip: Make sure you check your science fair guidelines for any specific limitations on size.

  • Choose the right title. Your title should be accurate for your project but should be catchy enough, or interesting enough, to make a viewer curious. Your title should also be big enough to be seen from a good distance—and in a color type and font face that is easy to read and stands out on your board. Tip: spend time brainstorming for the best title for your project. Come up with a list of possibilities before you decide.

  • Tell the whole story. Your board should contain all of the information required for a viewer to understand your project from start to finish. Our handy Project Display Checklist can help you keep track of what information should be on your board. Tip: print out a copy and check off each element as you put it in place.


  • Make effective use of headlines and subheads. After a minute of looking at the board, the viewer should know what question you were researching, what you expected to happen, and how things turned out. In a short amount of time, the viewer will gather most of that information from headlines, photos, charts, and captions. The rest of the story is there, but pay attention to what someone can read by first reading all the headlines or subheads on the board. Test it yourself: JUST read the headlines and subheads on the draft of your board you've plotted on a sheet of paper or in your lab notebook. Include a summary of any photos. If necessary, take a blank sheet and job down the narrative you get by only reading those elements. Does the "summary" hold together?

  • Know your font sizes. A project display board headline needs to be read almost across the room. Other elements of the board should be clearly readable at arm's length or even by someone walking by. If your text is too small, a viewer won't be able to easily take in the information—and might not even try. Be sure and understand the difference in font size for headlines and subheads versus the rest of the text. Use your sizes consistently to help guide viewers through the material. A board that is easy to read—both in terms of color balance and font selection—can immediately earn attention points. "A catchy title with lettering I can read easily from 20 feet away really piques my interest and can make me hurry over to learn more," says Slutz. Tip: review the Everything You Need to Know About Fonts for Display Boards resource.

  • Remember the power of pictures. Photos and diagrams can quickly and efficiently convey information to a viewer—plus, they'll liven up your board! Just be sure to use relevant captions or subheads to further explain a photo's contents. And, don't put text on top of photos. It's hard to read! Tip: You want your board to be balanced. Use enough visual elements to help support and convey your information, but be careful not to make the board too cluttered.

  • Use quality materials. From self-standing display boards to heavier papers and quality adhesives, gathering your materials before you start can make the project display board process a smoother experience. Tip: Our shopping list will help you determine what you need. We recommend keeping plenty of glue sticks on hand!

  • Print your materials. Unless there is no alternative, don't hand-write elements for your display board. Use a word processing program to type up your information and headlines, and then print them out.

  • Don't wait until the last minute. Creating a good project display board takes time. Not only do you need to map out how you want your information to appear, but you'll need to create your diagrams, charts, images, and text blocks and print them out (in the right sizes) to assemble on your board. Planning ahead is really important. Remember: There is more to creating a successful project display board than just gluing some hand-written pieces of paper in place!

Take Pride In Your Science Project By Taking Time with Your Display Board

Take care in creating your project display board! You worked hard on the project, and you want to share your results with others. To do so effectively, you'll have to draw them in. Reviewing our resources, planning ahead, and remembering that the final step in the process can be the make-or-break step, can help make the time you spend working on your project display board both efficient and effective.

In the end, there's a bit of a trick to the process... your board has to be good enough and well-designed enough that the board itself is not what stands out—the science does. Says Slutz, "People always want to know 'what is the best board you've seen?' The truth is, I have no idea. I can give you a long list of awful ones! Ones where I couldn't read the text because the font was too difficult to read, or the display was covered in so many extra decorations that I couldn't find the information I was looking for, or the board was so tall that half of the sections were above my head, and I couldn't see them. The truth is, the best display boards I forget about, and instead I remember something far more exciting to me—the scienceonthe board. And really, that's the whole point."

Elmer's Logo
Elmer's Products Inc. is the official classroom sponsor of Science Buddies. For a full range of display boards and adhesives that can help as students get ready to showcase their science projects, visit Elmer's!



The da Vinci Way

Sample page from journals of Leonardo da Vinci. Image: public domain.
Born on April 15, 1452: Leonardo daVinci, a "total package" when it comes to the quest for knowledge. Students learning the importance of a lab notebook might find inspiration in da Vinci's famed journals. The notebooks contain over ten thousand illustrated pages, written in mirror cursive, in which da Vinci recorded daily observations, including science and engineering schematics.

See our "Lab Notebooks" blog entry for helpful tips and tricks compiled from staff scientists at Science Buddies.

What do your science notebooks look like? Do you have a picture to share? We'd love to see!



What to Do When a Project Goes Wrong

Science fair season may be winding down at most schools, but scientific exploration at home and in the classroom continues year-round. And where there is science, there are variables and materials and controls and reactions and things that change and bond and grow ... and things that don't.

Lots of things can go wrong with a project, even with a well-designed, well-scheduled, and conscientiously-run project.

Learning to handle a project that doesn't turn out exactly as expected and either regroup and get it back on track if there is time or deal with the unexpected results if the due date is too close for a repeat set of trials is important for students who are running scientific experiments of all sizes. It can be very frustrating when things go wrong. It can also be confusing, especially when you thought that you had done everything "right."

So what went wrong?

And what can you do about it?

What to Do Next

Our Staff Scientists have pooled their thoughts on troubleshooting a science project that doesn't work to help you step back, evaluate what happened, and figure out what you should do next.

  1. Are You Sure it Didn't Work?
    It is important to first stop and ask yourself "How do I know my project 'failed'?"

    "Maybe the problem is obvious," says Sandra, "like when you're putting together a circuit, and the light bulb at the other end fails to turn on. Or maybe you're re-creating a classic experiment like Gallileo's fabled Leaning Tower of Pisa Experiment, and you know what the proven hypothesis is," so you know it should have worked.

    It gets trickier when you are working on an experiment of your own design. The question you have to ask yourself, says Sandra, is "did my project 'fail,' or was my hypothesis just incorrect?"

    While student scientists can be disheartened if their initial educated guess turns out wrong, "proving a hypothesis wrong isn't bad science," reminds Sandra. For a student continuing research on the same topic, a failed hypothesis provides the groundwork for conducting further experiments to figure out why the initial guess was wrong.

  2. Before You Dive Back In...

    It can be tempting to jump right back in, change things, add something here, remove something there. But the best approach is to step back and take some time to think through what happened before you begin troubleshooting—and before you repeat your experiment.

    Our team all agrees it is important to take a deep breath and think about the project and the problem before you do anything hasty:

    Kristin: "Ask yourself what you expected to see happen (what was the output that you anticipated) and what you saw happen."

    Dave: "Be calm. Many procedures do not work flawlessly (or at all) the first time."

    Michelle: "If a project doesn't work right away, don't start changing things willy nilly. Leave the project alone for a few hours and let your mind work things out."

  3. Review the Science Behind the Project

    Doing some additional research, and re-reading any background materials that accompanied the project or procedures, can be an important step in troubleshooting. As Kristin explains, you want "to make sure that you understand the 'science' behind the experiment and what you expected to happen" so that you can effectively evaluate your results and analyze the procedures you used before trying again.

  4. Back to the Source

    Re-read the full set of directions or the steps of the Experimental Procedure. Why? You may have overlooked a step that made all the difference between success and failure.

    "As you read each step," says Sandra, "go back through your lab notebook and your memory and ask yourself: 'Did I do it exactly this way, or did I change this step in some way?'"

    Any changes you made, or steps you forgot, are good bets for where things went wrong!

    As you read through the project again, you'll want to pay special attention to the following:

    • The Materials

      One of the first things to doublecheck is the list of materials and supplies to ensure you used exactly what the project specified. Why? The wrong material could dramatically alter the outcome of an experiment. Similarly, if you knowingly made a substitution, even if you thought it would work, the changed material may have caused an unexpected result.

      Kristin suggests that you not only look again at the materials list yourself, but enlist a friend, parent, or teacher to carefully go through the materials list (and procedure) with you. "There may be times when you misinterpret how to do something or miss a detail about a brand, size, or setup," she says.

      Having an extra set of eyes look over the documentation with you can be really helpful.

    • Evaluate Your Variables
      Once you've reviewed the overall steps of your experiment, look carefully at your variables. Why? If you didn't treat your variables as outlined in the procedure, your results could certainly differ from the expected outcome. Maybe you misread something. Or, maybe you tried to take a shortcut?

      You want to ask yourself two important questions, says Kristin: "What are my inputs (what am I changing)?" and "Did I change them as directed?"

      Focus on Controls

      As you review your experimental procedure, you want to identify both the positive and the negative controls, if they exist.

      A positive control is a condition that should work regardless of your hypothesis. Positive controls are included to make sure that the experimental procedure is capable of giving you a positive result.

      A negative control is a condition where the experiment will not work regardless of your hypothesis. Negative controls are included to make sure that the experiment is capable of giving a negative result.

      How do they fit together?

      An example of the way positive and negative controls might operate or appear in a project can help you identify the controls in your own project.

      Sample project: If you were doing an experiment where you used glucose strips to measure the amount of glucose (sugar) in different solutions, your positive control (the one you know should give you a clear positive signal) would be a solution of sugar water that you made yourself. The negative control (the one you know should not give you a signal) would be plain tap water because water doesn't contain glucose.

      A problem uncovered: If the glucose strips failed to show a clear reading for the sugar water, or showed a reading for the plain water, you would know that the glucose strips were not working properly and that none of your experimental results were trustworthy—because your controls had failed.

    • Evaluate Your Controls

      A project that has built-in "controls" or "checkpoints" gives you clear points throughout the project where you can stop and evaluate your work or progress to make sure everything is right "at that point." Going back and looking at your results and progress at each control or checkpoint is an important step in figuring out what went wrong.

      If the experimental procedure identifies the controls, you want to ask yourself: "Did a control fail?" It is possible you can you use the controls to pinpoint which step went wrong.

    • When There are No Controls

      Not all projects use controls. Sandra suggests that if you are working on a project that doesn't use controls, you may want to determine places where they can be added before you run your test again.

      "Remember that it could be either a procedural step which is wrong, or some piece of equipment or material which is malfunctioning," says Sandra. "So you'll want controls which test as many of those things as possible."

      Projects that involve building something may not yield traditional controls, so it's helpful to think about inserting "checkpoints" or steps where you could do or observe something that will indicate if everything is working "so far." For example, if you are working on building a complicated circuit, taking a reading with a multimeter at a certain point can indicate whether or not you are on the right track.

    • The Procedure

      Carefully re-reading the procedure, step by step and line by line, is a critical aspect in troubleshooting a project. These tips from our scientists can help as you review:

      • Kristin: Pay close attention to any "notes" or images in the procedure that give clues about what you might observe, how the setup should look, or how you should conduct your testing.

      • David: If there is a device that you have made, double-check any diagrams provided to make sure you assembled it correctly.

  5. Talk it Over

    Talking over a "failed" project with a teacher or other adult can often be a good idea either before or after you work through the troubleshooting steps above. Sometimes, when you put things into words out loud, you'll hear the problem differently than when you are thinking it through on your own or on paper.

    "Science doesn't happen in a vacuum," reminds Sandra. "Scientists talk to each other, and their collective experiences (or sometimes just the act of saying it all out loud) can spark the critical 'ah-ha' moment of understanding what went wrong or what needs to happen."

Moving Forward

In the end, not all experiments will "work." If you're following someone else's Experimental Procedure (like a Science Buddies Project Idea), then you can probably feel confident that the project should work. Hopefully, careful troubleshooting using the guidelines and suggestions above will help you find the weak spot in the experiment you performed so that you can correct any problems and try again. But if your experiment was of your own design, it's possible it simply won't work as you've envisioned it this time around.

Troubleshooting can help you find what may be flaws in your design, and a review of the science behind the project and your ultimate goal for the project can help you shape and refine the procedure for subsequent trials and testing.

Don't lose heart.

Our scientists are quick to point out that not all science experiments "work" the first time.

"If your experiment 'failed,' consider yourself in good company," says Sandra. "The idea for many Nobel Prize-worthy science explorations started with someone scratching his or her head over a 'failed' experiment."

"Remember that negative results are real and important science, too," adds Kristin.

It's a good perspective to keep in mind. In fact, a "failed" experiment can be a stepping stone, says Sandra. "Understanding why an experiment failed can often lead you to a much more interesting, and unexpected, discovery."

Michelle agrees. "It is okay to fail. Remember what Thomas Edison said: 'Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.' It took Edison many, many tries to find the right filament for the light bulb. Just keep working, and you will be able to figure things out."

Related Blog Posts:



A Strong Hypothesis


"If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen."

Sound familiar? It should. This formulaic approach to making a statement about what you "think" will happen is the basis of most science fair projects and much scientific exploration.

Step by Step
You can see from the basic outline of the Scientific Method below that writing your hypothesis comes early in the process:
  1. Ask a Question
  2. Do Background Research
  3. Construct a Hypothesis
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
  6. Communicate Your Results

Following the scientific method, we come up with a question that we want to answer, we do some initial research, and then before we set out to answer the question by performing an experiment and observing what happens, we first clearly identify what we "think" will happen.

We make an "educated guess."

We write a hypothesis.

We set out to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

What you "think" will happen, of course, should be based on your preliminary research and your understanding of the science and scientific principles involved in your proposed experiment or study. In other words, you don't simply "guess." You're not taking a shot in the dark. You're not pulling your statement out of thin air. Instead, you make an "educated guess" based on what you already know and what you have already learned from your research.

If you keep in mind the format of a well-constructed hypothesis, you should find that writing your hypothesis is not difficult to do. You'll also find that in order to write a solid hypothesis, you need to understand what your variables are for your project. It's all connected!

If I never water my plant, it will dry out and die.

That seems like an obvious statement, right? The above hypothesis is too simplistic for most middle- to upper-grade science projects, however. As you work on deciding what question you will explore, you should be looking for something for which the answer is not already obvious or already known (to you). When you write your hypothesis, it should be based on your "educated guess" not on known data. Similarly, the hypothesis should be written before you begin your experimental procedures—not after the fact.

Hypotheses Tips

Our staff scientists offer the following tips for thinking about and writing good hypotheses.

  • The question comes first. Before you make a hypothesis, you have to clearly identify the question you are interested in studying.
  • A hypothesis is a statement, not a question. Your hypothesis is not the scientific question in your project. The hypothesis is an educated, testable prediction about what will happen.
  • Make it clear. A good hypothesis is written in clear and simple language. Reading your hypothesis should tell a teacher or judge exactly what you thought was going to happen when you started your project.
  • Keep the variables in mind. A good hypothesis defines the variables in easy-to-measure terms, like who the participants are, what changes during the testing, and what the effect of the changes will be. (For more information about identifying variables, see: Variables in Your Science Fair Project.)
  • Make sure your hypothesis is "testable." To prove or disprove your hypothesis, you need to be able to do an experiment and take measurements or make observations to see how two things (your variables) are related. You should also be able to repeat your experiment over and over again, if necessary.

    To create a "testable" hypothesis make sure you have done all of these things:

    • Thought about what experiments you will need to carry out to do the test.
    • Identified the variables in the project.
    • Included the independent and dependent variables in the hypothesis statement. (This helps ensure that your statement is specific enough.
  • Do your research. You may find many studies similar to yours have already been conducted. What you learn from available research and data can help you shape your project and hypothesis.
  • Don't bite off more than you can chew! Answering some scientific questions can involve more than one experiment, each with its own hypothesis. Make sure your hypothesis is a specific statement relating to a single experiment.

Putting it in Action

To help demonstrate the above principles and techniques for developing and writing solid, specific, and testable hypotheses, Sandra and Kristin, two of our staff scientists, offer the following good and bad examples.

Good Hypothesis Poor Hypothesis
When there is less oxygen in the water, rainbow trout suffer more lice.

Kristin says: "This hypothesis is good because it is testable, simple, written as a statement, and establishes the participants (trout), variables (oxygen in water, and numbers of lice), and predicts effect (as oxygen levels go down, the numbers of lice go up)."

Our universe is surrounded by another, larger universe, with which we can have absolutely no contact.

Kristin says: "This statement may or may not be true, but it is not a scientific hypothesis. By its very nature, it is not testable. There are no observations that a scientist can make to tell whether or not the hypothesis is correct. This statement is speculation, not a hypothesis."

Aphid-infected plants that are exposed to ladybugs will have fewer aphids after a week than aphid-infected plants which are left untreated.

Sandra says: "This hypothesis gives a clear indication of what is to be tested (the ability of ladybugs to curb an aphid infestation), is a manageable size for a single experiment, mentions the independent variable (ladybugs) and the dependent variable (number of aphids), and predicts the effect (exposure to ladybugs reduces the number of aphids)."

Ladybugs are a good natural pesticide for treating aphid infected plants.

Sandra says: "This statement is not 'bite size.' Whether or not something is a 'good natural pesticide' is too vague for a science fair project. There is no clear indication of what will be measured to evaluate the prediction."

Hypotheses in History

Throughout history, scientists have posed hypotheses and then set out to prove or disprove them. Staff Scientist Dave reminds that scientific experiments become a dialogue between and among scientists and that hypotheses are rarely (if ever) "eternal." In other words, even a hypothesis that is proven true may be displaced by the next set of research on a similar topic, whether that research appears a month or a hundred years later.

A look at the work of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, more than 100 years apart, shows good hypothesis-writing in action.

As Dave explains, "A hypothesis is a possible explanation for something that is observed in nature. For example, it is a common observation that objects that are thrown into the air fall toward the earth. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) put forth a hypothesis to explain this observation, which might be stated as 'objects with mass attract each other through a gravitational field.'"

Newton's hypothesis demonstrates the techniques for writing a good hypothesis: It is testable. It is simple. It is universal. It allows for predictions that will occur in new circumstances. It builds upon previously accumulated knowledge (e.g., Newton's work explained the observed orbits of the planets).

"As it turns out, despite its incredible explanatory power, Newton's hypothesis was wrong," says Dave. "Albert Einstein (1879-1955) provided a hypothesis that is closer to the truth, which can be stated as 'objects with mass cause space to bend.' This hypothesis discards the idea of a gravitational field and introduces the concept of space as bendable. Like Newton's hypothesis, the one offered by Einstein has all of the characteristics of a good hypothesis."

"Like all scientific ideas and explanations," says Dave, "hypotheses are all partial and temporary, lasting just until a better one comes along."

That's good news for scientists of all ages. There are always questions to answer and educated guesses to make!

If your science fair is over, leave a comment here to let us know what your hypothesis was for your project.



Yesterday on the Science Buddies Blog, we talked about examples from the science community where scientists are misbehaving. From distorted findings to misrepresentation of data, recent science news abounds with stories of poor behavior among professional scientists.

While projects can and do sometimes fail, sometimes end up quite different than planned, and sometimes present findings that don't match initial hypotheses, you can give yourself the best chance for success by planning ahead.

Checklist for a Smooth Science Project

The following suggestions are designed to help increase your chances for a successful science fair project and a positive science fair experience.

    Routine Project "Checks" Can Help!
    Teachers can help ensure that projects are not put off until the last minute by grading each step of the process as a separate assignment and putting in place routine "checkpoints" along the way. For helpful information about structuring science fair projects so that progress is evaluated at several key points or in timed intervals (e.g., weekly), see the Science Buddies Science Fair Schedule Worksheet.
  • Allow plenty of time. Waiting until the last minute to begin a science fair project is a bad idea. Even for a project that can be conducted in a short amount of time, you need to ensure you have time to perform adequate research. You also need to build in enough time so that if the project doesn't work the first time, you have the chance to perform the necessary steps again.
  • Once you've selected your project, plan ahead. Be sure to carefully read the entire project as well as the materials list so that you have a good sense of what steps you'll be taking.
  • Gather all of the required materials as soon as possible so that you have everything on hand. Be sure and allow extra time if you are ordering materials. While substitutions are sometimes possible, don't substitute unless you have to—and unless you are certain the substitution is viable. In some cases, it is best to consider changing projects if you find that you can't get the required materials.
  • Build time into the schedule to do a "dry run," in case there are unforeseen problems that can be addressed and corrected. An inexperienced cook probably wouldn't try a difficult recipe for the first time when preparing an important meal. Too many things can go wrong! A science project is no different. If your timeline allows it, doing a "trial run" of the project can help make the final project run more smoothly.
  • Carefully follow instructions. Make sure that you follow your experimental procedure step by step to avoid missing something important that could make or break the project. You don't want to doom your results because you thought you needed to add "X" amount and added "y" or because you thought you needed to water your seeds on day "9" when it was really supposed to be on day "3."
  • Be sure and record all of your steps in your lab notebook. If something goes wrong, having thorough notes can help you troubleshoot later. You will also need your notes to help prepare your final report.
  • In the end, if the experiment did not work, and you can't fix it, be honest. Explain what you were hoping to observe and what you did observe. Explain what went wrong and what you feel might account for the results you saw. In other words, what are the possible causes for the project not working?

No matter what: do not fake data. Doing so is cheating and fraud—and it's against the spirit of the science fair.

It Happens

Even with careful planning, sometimes a project "goes wrong." It happens to scientists in every field. Sometimes, what went wrong can lead to new understanding, a new study, or even an unexpected discovery.

Stay tuned for some hands-on tips from our staff scientists that can help you troubleshoot what may be happening if your project isn't working.



In recent months, the news has been riddled with stories about professional scientists behaving poorly. In November 2009, a hacker pirated and circulated hundreds of email messages that spawned what has become known as "Climategate,", a scandal which allegedly involves the systematic and deliberate misrepresentation of statistical data regarding global warming. On the heels of Climategate, the British medical journal Lancet this month retracted a scientific paper because of fraudulent data regarding a link between immunizations and autism, and the American publication Science recently placed a paper under suspicion until it receives additional data. In other news, claims regarding the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers have been exposed as "speculative."

These examples from the scientific world are disheartening. They point to a certain level of ethical demise where results that "fit" expected or desired findings are more important than the scientific quest for truth. In each case, faulty findings and misrepresentation of data have had significant impact upon popular thinking and even upon economic planning and spending.

For teachers and students, these examples can be confusing. If the goal of experimentation and research is to test hypotheses, to explain things, to uncover what happens under certain circumstances, and to answer questions that can lead to new knowledge and further discovery, then why lie about what the data shows?

Why Falsify?

Scientists are human. It is natural to want to be right. It can be hard to discover in subsequent trials that early findings were not as conclusive as initially believed. It can be hard to have to "qualify" data or suggest that something that seemed breakthrough early on maybe wasn't. It can hard to admit that something didn't turn out as expected.

The pressure to publish research and findings can contribute to these problems. In the rush to put out new materials, "it can be tempting to take short cuts, to rush data that isn't fully analyzed out the door, or, worst of all, to fabricate data," says Sandra Slutz, Science Buddies lead staff scientist.

Students face similar time constraints and pressure, and sometimes students think the only way to get a good grade on a science project is for the project to show exactly what they set out to show. It is important for teachers, students, parents, and those involved in science fairs to create an environment where solid research and testing, where adherence to the scientific method, and where a spirit of enthusiastic investigation is encouraged — even if a project, in the end, doesn't turn out as expected.

What students stand to learn from a science project that is conducted properly from start to finish far outweighs the importance of the data fitting the student's original hypothesis or supporting a known scientific principle.

An Honest Fair

For teachers, parents, and students, stories of scientific fraud, deception, and misrepresentation in the science community are warning signs and offer concrete examples for talking constructively about the value of science fair projects, about "why" we conduct scientific experiments and "why" schools hold science fairs.

A science fair project is supposed to be a learning experience, and teachers and parents need to work together to ensure that the experience is a positive one. Unfortunately, whether you are a middle school student or a professional scientist, experiments don't always turn out the way that you want! That doesn't, however, mean that you should alter your results, ignore something important that happened, or pretend that things turned out differently than they did. Ultimately, you may not prove your hypothesis. But that doesn't mean that your science fair project had no merit!

If at First You Don't Succeed

It happens. Experiments do not always turn out the way you expect or want. Sometimes, it is because something avoidable went wrong. You can learn from that and try again or alter your procedures in the future. Sometimes, it is hard to tell "what" went wrong. Sometimes, the data simply doesn't match up to expectations.

On the bright side, you can learn a lot from what goes wrong with a science project. Scientific discovery, in fact, is often a one-step-forward-two-steps-back process. If you love the area of science you've chosen for your project, spending time troubleshooting what may have happened and finding either a new approach or a revised method for working with the topic can turn into a viable project for your next science fair.

Donna Hardy, an Ask an Expert volunteer from Bio-Rad, recently reassured a student and parent that had run into problems with a cabbage cloning experiment, "With science projects, the important thing is the science and the experiment, not necessarily the results. Your son followed the protocol, set up the experiment, and obtained some results. Not necessarily the results he was expecting, but there were results."

Be open, too, to what "what went wrong" suggests. You might find that unexpected results can lead your research or project in an entirely new direction.

As Amber Hess, a Science Buddies volunteer and Expert in the Ask an Expert forums notes: "My best project came about from a mistake I made in a different project. That's also how the microwave oven was invented!"

Indeed, observations that led to the development of the microwave oven started with an unexpected mess—a chocolate bar that melted in the pocket of Percy Spencer, an American engineer working with magnetrons for Raytheon. The melted chocolate bar demonstrated a side-effect of the magnetrons: their heating properties. Spencer went on to experiment with popcorn and then eggs. It wasn't where he started, but it led to a discovery that changed the face of the modern kitchen!

Just imagine if Spencer hadn't realized the potential in re-directing his research based on the melted chocolate bar!

As Sandra notes, "Every scientist, from famous Nobel prize winners to laboratory technicians in their first job, have had an experiment fail. Actually they've had a lot of experiments fail. And that's okay! It is simply part of the process. What differentiates the good scientists from the rest is what they do next. The truly horrible ones make up results, the bad ones simply give up and move to a new question, and the good scientists figure out why the project failed, implement a solution, and try again... and again... and again until it works."

Stay tuned for a checklist of ways to get your science project started off on the right foot to give yourself the best chance for success. Check back, also, for more suggestions from our staff scientists and experts regarding what to do... when a project doesn't work and how to troubleshoot what may have gone wrong.



Lab Notebooks


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!


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