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.
Choosing a Laboratory Notebook
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!
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.