Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN’s) are a software solution that allows research data to be stored on a unified platform. They facilitate better accessibility, connectivity and flexibility in the laboratory environment. Whilst industries have been quick to adopt ELN software, the academic uptake has been by comparison, slow. Considering the specific benefits ELNs offer, such as allowing individuals to upload a variety of file formats or improved communication with comment and messaging features; ELNs could be a useful tool in education. As of yet many institutions have not adopted ELNs into teaching strategy, but with the blurring of the digital and physical worlds, it is likely that there will be a greater pressure in the coming years to implement enabling technologies. ELNs are the digitised version of one of the most important tools of the scientist: the laboratory notebook. Therefore, learning how to document experiments correctly in a laboratory notebook is a crucial element of scientific research. As ELNs are the future method of research documentation, this software could be used to enrich the education of both university and high school students studying science.
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The current university system sees a science student spending on average six hours a week in the laboratory (differing with each university). In these sessions, students use paper laboratory notebooks to document all relevant information they need for practicals later in the year. After each session, the students are expected to fully write up all practicals in their lab books. Yet as one student states “this doesn’t usually happen as lab notebooks are rarely handed in, so often I forget to fill in the lab notebook”. The use of documenting research and information is an incredibly important skill that is needed in both academia and industry. Teaching institutions need to be emphasising the importance of adopting good habits and filling out the lab notebook as it is crucial to ensure the integrity of research.
Another subject brought up was communication with the teacher/lecturer. Students at most universities currently have to email lecturers/teachers or speak to them directly at the end of a lecture. When asked whether they could benefit from a system that allows them to communicate directly with their teacher alongside their work, the respondents said it would be an incredibly helpful feature that would solve a lot of problems. All students agreed that an online platform to store research data and conduct projects would help science courses at university. One student recalled the time he had to drive back to his hometown just to pick up a paper lab notebook he’d left behind. This issue could be solved with the implementation of an ELN which allows data relating to your course to be stored in one location which can be accessed by a course member at any time.
From a student perspective ELN software is good because it is designed to encourage good data management and structure, which is particularly important to those learning a science. An ELN provides the tools to help individuals working in labs document an experiment in a structured manner, a feature that would be particularly beneficial to students. Within an ELN it is possible to upload documents such as word or excel along with images, which can be annotated. This allows all work to be stored on a central platform for the teacher to see, no more loose documents or handouts! Moreover, it is possible to lookup materials and items and list them alongside a note; this ensures that students adopt good habits when learning how to work in the lab. ELN software also ensures that basic integrity regulations are considered. By using full audit trail, data is always recorded and therefore can always be retrieved.
ELN implementation will save teachers time and effort. Within an ELN it is possible to create project outlines and protocols which can be shared with all students, this can help with clarity when assignments are set. Groups and subgroups can be created in the ELN that can be particularly helpful for the teacher when they are organising classes and group projects. When it comes to marking individual students for contribution, teachers can benefit from being able to see which individuals posted what content. Further to this, some ELNs offer a student edition which provides a format that allows students to become accustomed to the features of the ELN in a monitored and structured manner.
An ELN can be accessed anywhere there is internet connectivity. This improved accessibility means no more rushing back home just to pick up a laboratory notebook! ELNs also include commenting and messaging features that facilitate easier engagement between the teacher and pupil. When using these features teachers are able to comment on notes so the student learns directly from their mistakes. This removes the problems that arise with using email, as often vague email responses mean that the student cannot see which sections of their work need to be amended, and thus cannot learn from mistakes.
Moreover, ELN admins have complete control over which individuals can add information to specific projects, guaranteeing that the teacher is able to oversee everything on the ELN, and act appropriately if changes need to be made. Both teachers and students can benefit from the advanced search functions that allow experiments and templates to be found simply by typing the name of individuals involved in the project or materials used, ensuring data is always findable, which can help when conducting an experiment similar to a previous one.
Being able to use an ELN makes a student more employable as ELNs are widely used in industrial laboratories. It would also help the teaching institution as it would make graduates better prepared for employment after university. It is important to note that smart labs are already being integrated into practice in laboratories, so adopting the ELN into the university laboratory environment will offset the leap from a non-digital environment to a digital one.
ELN implementation would ensure that a student remains in possession of all the work they have completed whilst at university in one place. After the student graduates, it is possible to download an offline copy of their experiments, students would have their university projects and work in digital form to refer to after university, ensuring what they learned from university never leaves them.
As mentioned previously, smart labs are in the near future. The digitalization of the lab will present a number of opportunities for scientists working in the lab. Yet in order to ensure a quick non-disruptive transition to smart labs, it is important that future scientists are accustomed to the software they will later need to use in the laboratory. Dr. Uwe Lohmeier, head of the Gläsernes Labor Akademie, GLA (an institution that provides business orientation courses for scientists and technicians in life sciences) is convinced of the need for ELNs to be implemented into the education system. He stated that learning how to use an “ELN already during the education (i.e. “on the job”) is an important part of doing R&D efficiently”. He furthered that “working in a global (lab) team will become routine in the near future. Therefore, safe and continuous data exchange within the global team will be key”.
The collaboration of tools the ELN software offers can be well-utilised in the education environment. ELNs offer a number of benefits for the student, teacher and institution; benefits that are too good to pass on. Good data management skills, for example, should be cultivated whilst studying at university; as ELNs are designed to ensure that data is recorded in a structured, detailed manner, it makes sense that students are introduced to ELNs early. ELNs are quickly becoming integrated into laboratories all over the world and students need to become accustomed to using a tool which will be widely used in the labs of the future.
Labfolder is an ELN which can help with science courses of all education levels. It is never too early to start using an ELN! Labfolder has a free version that allows one group with a maximum of three scientists – perfect if you are studying at university and want to try out an ELN for the first time! Our ELN also has a classroom edition that allows students to record findings and keep track of their progress when conducting or recording experiments. The ability to use replicable templates and our extensive material database ensures that students are taught how to use a system that is widely used in industry and is starting to be implemented in academia. Institutions might spend more money short term, but in the long term, investing in ELN software will pay off!