I recently outed myself on being on the fence about lab reports (part of my post about NCSU’s LabWrite Program). Lab reports, in my opinion, do a great job of preparing students for the academia portion of the scientific world. They are designed to mimic scientific journals and prepare students for presenting scientific research.
While I have a ton of respect for scientific research (and want to prepare students for it), the cold hard truth is that only a small fraction of your students will ever write for a scientific journal or present true scientific research. There are other forms of communication that we should be preparing them for.
I previously worked as an engineer in the paper industry. While I read scientific journals during that time, I never needed to break out my mad lab report writing skills. Instead, I needed to be able to gather information, analyze data, and present it in an organized fashion. Sometimes this took the form of an email to my supervisor, sometimes it was a presentation to a small group of stakeholders in a project, or preparing a graphic to help others understand how changes would affect other areas of our manufacturing facility.
The Best Writing Class I Ever Took
As part of my graduate program at UNCW, I took a technical writing course under Dr. Colleen Reilly. Trust me when I tell you that this scientist was dreading a writing course, but it turned out to be amazing.
Dr. Reilly had us research a topic in our field and carry out a literature review of that topic. Then we took that information and presented it different ways and with different audiences. The literature review was written to an audience of people in our field. We also had to write an article that was geared towards non-experts on the topic. We created infographics and took into consideration the public opinions related to our topic. The course introduced me to some great pieces of software (like Piktochart), plus it made me think of scientific topics from the prospective of a non-expert (a huge deal if you have to convince stakeholders that your project is important).
Lab Reports Aren’t the End All Be All
When it comes to lab reports, I tend to take a moderate approach. Some labs really lend themselves to traditional lab reports. Students form a hypothesis, carry out an experiment, gather data, analyze data, and make a conclusion. For these, I send students to the LabWrite website and have them write a full lab report. It is good practice for those who will move on to the field of research, and no one has to beat their head against a while trying to morph a few observations into an entire Results and Discussion section.
Other labs are much more qualitative in nature. They demonstrate a scientific concept well, but create a lot of frustration when you try to force them into a traditional lab report format. These are great opportunities to think outside of the box and allow students to practice some other forms of technical communication.
So what are some alternatives?
Lab Posters are Great Alternatives
I love lab posters and find them to be much more relevant than lab reports. Students who do undergraduate research will probably never write an article for a scientific journal, but there is a good chance that they will participate in a poster presentation.
Lab posters can include much of the same information as lab reports, or they can allow for a little more creative freedom. I really prefer lab posters in cases where there is more visual, or qualitative data. I allow students to take pictures of their experiment and incorporate the pictures in their posters. Students love this! Anytime they can incorporate their SnapChat app into a chemistry assignment, they are pretty enthused.
Consider the flame test experiment. This is such a visual lab! Why not choose a presentation format that represents that? Below is a lab poster my high school students produced for this lab. (This one was created using a free template from PosterPresentations.com).
I’ve also used lab posters with upper level students. Below is one created for an organic chemistry lab. (This one used a PowerPoint template that I created. You can download it here.)
You can also easily create your own PowerPoint poster template. Simply change the size of the slide to whatever size your poster printer is capable of (often 36″ by 48″). Click Design, then Slide Size to scale it up.
Lab Memos are a Good Happy Medium
Another alternative to the traditional lab report is a lab memo. This is an abbreviated lab report that includes the major findings from the lab. I really love these because they mimic the memos/emails I often had to write when I worked in an industrial environment. The lab memo forces students to pick out what is important, analyze their data, and draw some conclusions.
Some students wonder how formal a memo should be. A memo is not something that is going to be published, but in professional environments they are often forwarded to other people who may be interested in the topic. My advice to students is that when writing a memo, write in such a way that you would be comfortable with your boss’s boss reading it. This is not quite as formal as a lab report, but more formal than a quick email.
In terms of the format of the memo, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are tons of them out there. Click here for some templates from Office.com.
Here are the items I ask my students to include in a lab memo:
- Lab Objectives – A few sentences giving the overall goals of the lab. Typically this is describing what you were trying to synthesize or test. There may be a quantitative goal (is a sample made up of certain percentages of different substances) or a qualitative goal (how pure is your sample) that you would want to mention here.
- Experimental considerations – Indicate what experimental procedure you followed. Was the procedure modified at all? Were there any significant observations that your reader should be aware of? (You do not have to list all of the steps of the procedure. It is OK to just list where the procedure was found.)
- Findings/Results – Use whatever method is most appropriate to concisely report your findings. This may be in the form of a few sentences, a table, a graph, etc.
- Conclusion – How did your findings compare to your goal. Are there any recommendations you can make?
Beyond the Lab Report
For labs that really lend themselves to a lab report, by all means check out NCSU’s LabWrite program. But give yourself the freedom to think beyond the lab report for the labs that don’t fit well into that format. Dr. Reilly taught me that scientific writing isn’t always scientific. Teach your students to write to a variety of audiences. Prepare them for all types of technical writing – not just the ones that are found in the world of academia.
What lab report alternatives do you use? I’d love to hear about it in the comments (or in one of my social channels).
Resources from this Post:
- NCSU’s Lab Write Program is great for helping with traditional lab reports.
- My lab poster template can be found here: Lab Poster Template.
- Other lab poster templates can be found at PosterPresentations.com.
- Piktochart is A-Mazing for creating infographics.
- Microsoft Office has memo templates available.