Keep a Great Science or Engineering Project Laboratory Notebook
Whether you are a research scientist, an engineer, or a first-time science fair student, you should use a lab notebook to document your science investigations, experiments, and product designs. A lab notebook is an important part of any research or engineering project. Used properly, your lab notebook contains a detailed and permanent account of every step of your project, from the initial brainstorming to the final data analysis and research report. Many science projects require a number of steps and multiple trials. By recording the steps of your procedure, your observations, and any questions that arise as you go, you create a record of the project that documents exactly what you did and when you did it. With a complete record of the project in your lab notebook, you can look back at your notes later if a question arises or if you decide to pursue a related project based on something you observed. Similarly, writing down your product design ideas, engineering challenges, and product testing data will help you keep track of all of your ideas, what you have already tried, and how well a particular design performed.
Keeping a lab notebook is easy! The most important thing to do is to "use" your lab notebook. (Click the "Using a Lab Notebook" tab for specific tips, techniques, and reminders.)
|Figure 1. There are many styles of lab notebooks available for students, professionals, and research teams.|
Choosing a Laboratory Notebook
There are many kinds of lab notebooks available, ranging from official lab notebooks to makeshift notebooks. The following table offers a summary of different types of notebooks and notes regarding for which users each type works best.
|Types of Lab Notebooks||Description||Recommended For|
|Bound composition notebook||A bound spine (not spiral binding) makes it difficult for pages to be easily torn out and lost. Hard covers make the book even more durable, but a soft or cardboard cover will work too. Composition books are easy to find at local stores and are inexpensive.||
|Official laboratory notebook||Official lab notebooks often include useful and convenient features like a designated area for creating a table of contents and numbered pages for easy cross-referencing. Official laboratory notebooks may also include quick reference materials like the periodic table, metric conversions, or an amino acid codon table. With high-quality, hard-to-tear paper, these notebooks are generally rugged and designed to stand up to lots of handling.||
|Duplicate style lab notebook||Duplicate style lab notebooks are a subset of the official lab notebooks style with the added feature of carbonless duplicate sets. This format is ideal for keeping the originals and giving copies to research partners or a teacher.||
|Electronic lab notebook||Lab notebooks can also be kept using software or an online tool. Electronic lab notebooks are simple to organize and make it easy to share data with other scientists (or a teacher). Electronic lab notebooks are becoming more common in the professional world and for citizen science collaborations but are not yet common for science and engineering fairs. Students should check with their teachers before using this lab notebook method.||
While nice, an official lab notebook is not always necessary. A bound notebook or standard composition book will often work. Look for a notebook with lined or graph-paper style pages and a stiff cover. Do not choose an ordinary spiral-bound notebook. The pages are too easy to rip out and lose, especially if the notebook has perforated pages!
For additional information about purchasing lab notebooks, see the "Where to Buy" tab.
Amy Cowen and Sandra Slutz, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Portions of this lab notebook overview were adapted from an earlier document written for Science Buddies: Rebbeck, Ph.D., Joanne. (2005, February 24). What Makes a Great Science Project Logbook.
Getting Started with Your Science Laboratory Notebook
Once you have selected a lab notebook, the following tips and techniques will help you get started keeping an organized, well-maintained lab notebook for your science or engineering project:
- Label your lab notebook. Put your name, your teacher's name (if it applies), and some form of contact information, like an email address or phone number, in a prominent location, like the inside cover. If you accidentally leave the lab notebook behind or lose it, someone will be able to reach you if the notebook is found. If your notebook will be used for a single science or engineering project, also label the notebook with the project title and the year.
- Use ink. Make your lab notebook entries in pen, not in pencil. Using a smudge-proof pen may reduce the risk of smears. If you make a mistake in your lab notebook, simply cross out the error and write in the necessary correction.
- Number the pages. Numbering the pages of your lab notebook helps keep your notebook organized. You can use these numbers to set up an index or table of contents or to cross-reference earlier observations within your lab notebook. If the pages of your lab notebook are not already numbered, you may want to number them before you begin using the lab notebook.
- Create a table of contents. To quickly go back and find information in your lab notebook, it helps to create a table of contents. The traditional way (used by professional scientists and engineers) is to create a Table of Contents as you go. Label the first page "Table of Contents," and then as you work on the project, enter important pages in the Table of Contents. For example, when you begin your Experimental Procedure, you might note "Trial 1, Page 10" in the Table of Contents so you can quickly find your notes at a later date.
If you find this method too confusing, and your teacher allows, you can create tabs for the different sections of your science project. This optional approach may help you keep your notes and records organized. Your sections will vary based on your science or engineering project, and you may find that your class assignment or the steps of the scientific or engineering method can help you determine the sections you will use. The following table shows a sample set of sections that might appear in a student science project lab notebook. In this sample, the student has used tabs to mark the various divisions of the lab notebook and recorded the color of each tab in the Table of Contents for easy reference.
|Table of Contents||Tab color||Page #|
|Data and Results||Purple||40|
|Data Analysis and Conclusions||Orange||50|
- Date your entries. Always date your lab notebook entries. Even if your entry is very short, adding a date helps you track when you took certain steps or made certain observations. Your lab notebook will be a sequential record of your project, so the dates are important.
- No blank pages. Your lab notebook entries should be entered consecutively, starting at the front of the notebook. When making entries, do not skip pages. (If you are using sections, as outlined above, do not skip pages within a section when making a new entry.) Scientists and researchers often cross out unused sections of a page so that nothing can be added later that might alter or confuse the data originally recorded.
- Be brief. While some entries in your lab notebook may require in-depth notes, many of your entries will be short and concise. Full sentences are not required! Every scientist develops her own style of recordkeeping. What is important is that you record enough information so that you fully understand the notes you've made and so that the notes contains all important or necessary details. Looking back at an entry, even months later, it should be clear to you exactly what you did or documented on that day. It should also be clear to your teacher or another scientist or engineer!
|Figure 2. The lab notebook page above records weekly observations made during a composting investigation over a period of several weeks. The entries are short, but each is dated, the observations are clear, and important data has been recorded in each entry.|
- Keep it legible. Your lab notebook entries should be easy to read, but do not worry if the entries are not perfectly neat or if you make a mistake.
- No loose papers. Be sure to secure loose papers in your lab notebook with glue, tape, or staples. Unsecured items (including sticky notes) may fall out or be damaged. If there are digital materials you want to include in your lab notebook, you may find it helpful to print them at a reduced size and then glue or tape them into the notebook.
|Figure 3. It is important to secure all items in your lab notebook so that nothing is lost. In the lab notebook shown above, small, loose papers have been taped in place.|
- Do not remove pages. If something is wrong on a page, or if you discover an accidental blank page, simply put a large "x" through the area or page, signaling that it should be ignored. Do not tear pages out.
- Keep it with you. You want to record every single detail of your science or engineering project in your lab notebook, so you need to make sure you have it with you at all times, especially when you are in the lab, working on your procedure, doing research, or collecting data. Do not take the chance that you will remember all of the details to record at a later date. You also do not want to make a habit or recording data on scraps of paper and entering them in the lab notebook after the fact. Loose papers are easily lost. Keep the lab notebook with you and make your entries on the spot.
- Do it every day. Get in the habit of starting a new entry as soon as you go to the lab or begin working on your science project for the day, even if you are only taking a quick measurement or doing a visual check. Write down the date and then record what you do. As you get in a routine of documenting your research and experiment every day, using your lab notebook will become an important part of how you navigate a science or engineering project!
Keeping Track of Your Science or Engineering Project
Now that you have a lab notebook and an understanding of organizational strategies that can help you make the most of your lab notebook, it is time to start recording your science or engineering project. What should you include? Everything!
Your lab notebook should be used from the beginning of your project and should reflect all phases of your project (and all steps of the scientific or engineering method. Someone looking at your lab notebook should be able to follow your steps through the science or engineering project, from beginning to end. In your lab notebook, you want to document and include the following kinds of information:
- Project planning. As you plan your science project, use your lab notebook to capture the questions you hope to investigate, your hypothesis, and your variables.
- Research. Record your background research, noting sources you use (including URLs or bibliographic data). Summarize articles and publications you review (or plan to review) during your background research, any interviews you conduct, and notes related to feedback, suggestions, or troubleshooting you receive from a teacher or mentor. This information will make compiling your bibliography much easier!
- Materials. Document the materials you use (including specific brands, quantities, and costs).
- Experimental procedure. Record all details related to your experimental design, setup, and procedure. As you begin your experiment, document your steps, trials, and observations. Be sure and clearly note any modifications you make and any problems you encounter, including any mistakes. Even if it seems trivial or inconsequential, you should write it down.
|Figure 4. The lab notebook entry shown above records an unexpected problem the student encountered with a plant biology project. The student's notes record steps the student took to troubleshoot the experimental setup.|
- Data collection. Your data is critical to your science project and to the conclusions you will draw at the end of the project. As you gather data, be careful to accurately enter all numbers, measurements, temperatures, calculations, or other data. It is best to enter all data directly in your lab notebook. If you have data logged electronically, keep a list of log dates and file names and tape or glue printed copies into your lab notebook when possible.
|Figure 5. The photo above shows photosynthetic data from oak seedlings that have been recorded in a lab notebook (left). Related data files were also stored electronically on a computer. A list of file names were entered in the lab notebook (right).|
- Visual records. Diagrams and charts can be very important in helping you record your science or engineering project. When appropriate, draw a figure in your lab notebook to visually record an aspect of your project. Be sure to date and label, or annotate, the drawing.
|Figure 6. The photos above show a lab notebook sketch that documents sample points inside shade tents (left) and a schematic record of different ages of tree branches that were sampled during an experiment (right).|
A Successful Laboratory Notebook
Make entering notes about your project in your lab notebook a routine part of your science project. When it is time to put your final presentation together, you will be glad for the time you spent documenting your project in your lab notebook! An organized and well-maintained lab notebook may impress teachers and science fair judges, and if you are asked questions about specific steps of your project, you will have the information at hand!
Finding and Purchasing a Laboratory Notebook
Lab notebooks can be purchased at office supply stores or online at Amazon.com. Be sure and check with your teacher for any specific requirements for your lab notebook (e.g., size, binding, etc.). See the "Overview" tab for a summary of different types of lab notebooks.
Specialty lab notebooks available from Hayden-McNeil allow students to make entries and tear out a "duplicate" (or copy) to hand in to a teacher. If your teacher requires that you turn in pages of your notebook at certain points in the science project, this system makes it easy, and you won't be without your notebook while your progress is being reviewed! This format is also ideal for sharing information if you are working on a team science or engineering project.
|Figure 7. Duplicate style lab notebook pages are clearly marked so that the "copy" can be torn out and turned in or given to a research partner.|
Hayden-McNeil's carbonless duplicate lab notebooks are available in hardbound and spiral-bound formats and for different areas of science. You can view and order Hayden-McNeil's student lab notebooks at Amazon.com.
For more guidance and suggestions about keeping a lab notebook, see the following Science Buddies resources:
Laboratory Notebooks in the Professional World
All scientists and engineers keep a record of their research, of phases of experiments, of results, and new ideas. Lab and engineering notebooks also serve as legal logs to document when an individual discovered or invented something. In a patent lawsuit, a lab notebook would be a crucial piece of evidence helping to determine who was the "first" inventor. For this reason, professional lab notebooks are held to even greater levels of organization, security, and verification. In companies, lab notebooks are often witnessed and signed by a direct supervisor. In addition, all mistakes are dated and initialed when they are crossed out.