Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom: Useful Tools to Prepare Students for Authentic Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom: Useful Tools to Prepare Students for Authentic Science

Article excerpt


In a professional laboratory setting, the laboratory notebook is a fundamental tool that captures questions, procedures, observations, raw data, data analysis, potential problems, solutions, and new questions. In the science classroom, the lab notebook provides an ongoing record of students' thinking and their laboratory methods and processes. These notebooks help students place science in a meaningful context and emphasize the importance of critical thinking and communication (Edelson 1997).

Lab notebooks provide students with authentic science experiences as they become active, practicing scientists. Teachers gain insight into students' understanding of science content and processes, while students create a lasting personal resource. This article provides high school science teachers with guidelines for implementing lab notebooks in the classroom.

A powerful tool

Inside the high school classroom, the lab notebook is a powerful tool--it engages students in the authentic practice of science while providing the teacher with insight into student thinking and comprehension of content (Edelson 1997). The lab notebook can also help assess students during performance events--which require a great deal of time and a number of expert observers to simultaneously assess numerous students. Notebooks preserve a great deal of the investigation while reducing the need for expert observers. A student notebook can thus be used as a substitute for, or a supplement to, direct observation (Shavelson, Baxter, and Pine 1991).

Laboratory notebooks also provide an intersection for the individual and communal nature of science. Through the use of lab notebooks, the science teacher simultaneously addresses course content, engages students in exploring the nature of science, and provides a venue for practicing a broad range of communication skills (Edelson and O'Neill 1994).

Although there is no doubt that the lab notebook will eventually go electronic, the information and detail that must be captured will not change with the media. In fact, the added collaboration associated with electronic lab notebooks will require sharpened communication skills.

Introducing the lab notebook

Students accustomed to fill-in-the-blank worksheets may balk at the additional work that a lab notebook requires. Establishing the authenticity of a laboratory notebook is fundamental to nurturing student buy-in. There are many ways to show students that the notebook is more than just a classroom exercise. This section presents a few possible activities that teachers can implement to engage students with this tool.

Invite a guest speaker from the industry or a researcher from a local college or university to talk to the class. They can share the importance of documentation in the laboratory. For example, they might explain how they use a lab notebook to document unique protocols for future use. Guest speakers may also talk about referring to the lab notebook when troubleshooting an assay or when there are unexpected results.

Have students use the internet to search for the phrase "laboratory notebook guidelines." Cooperative learning groups can compile, compare, and present the commonalities in their findings.

As a warm-up activity, give students a list of items that they could grab during a lab fire and ask them which they would save. After discussion, inform students that incoming staff members at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a major research institute in New York, are advised to grab only one item in a fire--their laboratory notebooks--because everything else can be recreated using it (Barker 1998).

Ask students how long their lab notebooks will be relevant. Share well-known examples, such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, which sell for millions of dollars. Introduce the work of Jeffery L. Bada, who used Stanley Miller's notebooks after Miller's death in 2007 to identify specific amino acid samples generated in 1953 during the Miller--Urey experiments. …

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