PANDEMIC!?! Meh… #DigPINS and Digital Lab Notebooks

In these unprecedented times… this significant event in our history… this once in a lifetime pandemic… did I miss any other cliche openings to reference the mess that this semester turned into? I may be speaking to the choir (now meeting virtually as singing spreads respiratory droplets), but participating in #DigPINS has made this transition to distance learning not nearly as jarring as others may have experienced. I was already prepared for delivering content online via Google Meets, students turn in PDF copies of their work in Moodle, and the text is an OER (OpenStax) available freely online. Teaching a lab based course though did present a challenge – how do you provide practical hands on experiences that students need for careers in the sciences? Spring break was coming and the rumblings were starting that we wouldn’t come back to campus right away, or at all. We were finishing our biodiversity module and still had some dissections left to complete that were originally scheduled for the weeks after break. I did consider sending them home with a fetal pig to dissect but the logistics just didn’t work out in time.

Setting Up a Digital Lab Notebook

If I can look at the bright side of a global catastrophe, I was fortunate in the timing of my #DigPINS implementation project. While I could’t expose students to wet lab experiments, I could introduce them to digital laboratory notebooks that many top tier research universities and industry labs are using. So long are the days of carbon copy paper, inked notes where a only single line through errors is permitted, and grainy pictures are taped directly to the pages. Thanks to the very supportive folks in ITS (Taylor Jadin and Susan Ashley) I was able to test a web based, open source lab notebook software: https://elabftw.knight.domains/ Taylor and Susan definitely did the heavy lifting to get this thing online. This wasn’t a matter of clicking a button, but rather needed a web server and routing through knight.domains. Thanks to them, SNC now has its very own research grade digital lab notebook for classroom and research applications.

Allow me to sell you on the wonders of this platform for scientific record keeping. If you are familiar with traditional lab notebooks, you know that there is only one record of the research experiment penned by students with only the most impeccable handwriting. You know that all of the information you need – units, dates, modifications to the protocol – are always there and formatted correctly. Lets not even go into how easy it is to sterilize a lab notebook and prevent cross contaminating your projects. Those of you who are not laboratory scientists reading this, please know every bit of that was sarcasm if it wasn’t already obvious. There are many drawbacks to traditional lab notebooks and many advantages to digital. For starters, the PI can create templates so that all experiments are recorded correctly and include all of the necessary information to repeat if the protocol. Notes are typed, no longer will you have to guess if that student who has long since graduate meant to write 100 ul or 100 ml. Entries are stamped with the date, time, and user. Common protocols can be stored and copied in when needed. Sample databases, inventories, and SOPs can be stored in the digital lab notebook as well. Users can include tables, photos, chemical formulas, and drawings. Progress is tracked with an easy to define color coding. Lastly, everything is backed up with tracking of previous versions.

Use in the Classroom

Back to this pandemic and how this digital lab notebook was a savior. Normally in this module of students would record observations and drawing in paper notebooks and I would be forced to lug around 48 of these things, each a slightly different size, some with notes from other classes, none in the format I requested to expedite grading. Using this digital lab notebook, I was able to assign users, assign them to different sections, and index each of the entries using tags for quick searches. Most importantly everything is accessible online so students can complete them from anywhere, I am able to grade them from anywhere, and I can save my tote bags for the farmers market. Since I couldn’t send them home with their very own pigs, I did have to rely on virtual dissection software for the remaining labs. However, students could still work on all of the pertinent skills in note taking and record keeping. Heads up, internal anatomy below:

Digital Competencies and Future Direction

This platform provides a lot of opportunities for students to build their digital literacy skills.
Digital Survival Skills: Networks and file management, Troubleshooting
Digital Communication: Collaborative communication, Digital writing and publishing
Data Management and Preservation: Electronic data collection, Privacy, security and preservation, Cleaning, organizing, and managing data, Metadata
Data Analysis and Presentation: Data analysis, Critical data visualization
Critical Making, Design and Development: Project management, Digital research and scholarship

Moving forward, I will be spending time setting up the necessary framework for students to contribute work to the digital lab notebook both in the classroom and as part of my scholarship. I’ll need to expand on the tags, templates, and databases so that as students work their additions are consistent with past work. My experience so far has been nothing but positive.

(2) Comments

  1. Reid Riggle

    Wow. I want to take that class! Thanks for sharing your project. This is a great example of how a digital strategy can support learning. It sounds like it was a good tool from the instructor perspective. What did your students think about the notebooks?

  2. Susan

    Adam, first of all, I am thrilled to hear your voice in this post. One skill in writing a blog is to allow your reader to hear the real you, and you have done this nicely.
    It has been great working with you on this initiative. The idea of digital notebooks could extend far beyond the sciences. Whether working online or face-to-face, this type of record keeping may be preferred by students and instructors alike. The digital skills embarked by this type of assignment will enable students to take what they are learning here at SNC into the next phase of their life and to lifelong learning. I am looking forward to hearing what students think.

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