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Start a lab notebook

A lab notebook is an important part of any science or engineering research project. Used properly, students’ lab notebooks contain a detailed and permanent account of every step of their project — from the initial brainstorming through iterations of testing and observations to the final data analysis. It documents exactly what a student did and when they did it. Lab notebooks can be physical or digital, and students should begin using one right away, even as they are determining their choice of topic.

The most important thing is that students develop the habit of actually using their notebook. Dr. Andrew Lettes of Pueblo High School would always say, “if it isn’t in the lab notebook, it didn’t happen.” The following techniques will help them get started and keep an organized, well-maintained lab notebook for their project.

Tips and techniques for lab journals

Label it

Notebooks should have the project title and year listed where they are easy to find. The student’s and teacher’s name can be listed in the back in case of loss.

Number the pages

If the pages of the lab notebook are not already numbered, students should number the pages to help keep the notebook organized. Students can use these numbers to set up a table of contents (see below) or to cross-reference earlier observations within the journal.

Create a table of contents

This should be created as they go and helps them to quickly go back and find information in the lab notebook. Label the first page “Table of Contents,” and then, as the students work on the project, they should enter important page numbers there. For example, when a student begins their investigations, they might note “Trial 1, Page 10” in the Table of Contents so they can quickly find their notes at a later date.

Date entries

Even if the entry is very short, adding a date helps students track when they took certain steps or made certain observations. Their lab notebook will be a sequential record of the project, so the dates are important.

Be detailed and concise

While some entries in the lab notebook may require in-depth notes, many of their entries will be short and concise. Full sentences are not required, however, notes should be clear enough to be understood by teachers, other scientists and engineers, or even the student looking back at the entry months later.

Avoid erasing

Notetaking can be done using pen or pencil. If a mistake is made in the lab notebook, simply strike though the mistake with a single line, and write in the necessary correction.

Don’t leave blank pages

The lab notebook entries should be entered consecutively, starting at the front of the notebook. When making entries, students should not skip pages. 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.

Do not remove pages

If something is wrong on a page, or if the student discovers 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.

Have it handy

They should record every single detail of their science or engineering project journey in the lab notebook in real time, so they need to make sure they have it with them when they are in the lab, working on the procedure, doing research, or collecting data. Students should not make a habit of recording data on scraps of paper or just planning to remember details in their head and entering them in the lab notebook after the fact. Data can easily be lost or forgotten.

Write often

Students need to develop the habit of starting a new entry as soon as they go to the lab, or begin working on their science project for the day, even if they are only taking a quick measurement or doing a visual check. Entries should consist of date, goal, documentation of what they did, reflection, summary, and their plan for next time. As students get in a routine of documenting their research and experiment every day, using the lab notebook will become an important part of how they navigate a science or engineering project.