Like many of her colleagues, assistant teaching professor Stefanie Chen splits her time between instruction and research as part of the Biotechnology Program at North Carolina State University. While her courses focus on biotechnology, her research focuses on undergraduate education. As Stefanie and her colleagues in the program teach, they also collect data.

Their current research projects hinge on student perspectives. Understanding what students think about their classroom experience can lead to better learning outcomes. When it comes to the merits of group vs. individual work, practical vs. written exams or paper vs. digital notebooks – students have something valuable to add to the conversation.

That last one, paper vs. digital notebooks, is at the core of a study Stefanie is writing up right now. We caught up with her to learn more about her study and her course in its COVID-19 form. As it turns out, the two are closely intertwined.

Stefanie and students using LabArchives ELN in the classroom pre COVID-19.

Why did you start using LabArchives?

When I taught first-year students, I originally didn’t want to give them too much of a learning curve so we used paper notebooks. We encountered tons of problems all of which could’ve been solved by working digitally. No one can ‘forget’ to bring their work to class if you’re using a digital notebook, for example. 

And now you use LabArchives for your biotechnology courses?

Yes, we started using LabArchives in the Biotechnology Program at NC State when I arrived  four years ago. The majority of our courses include a hands-on laboratory component with inquiry-based experiments for both undergraduate and graduate students. Currently, I’m the course administrator for all six laboratory sections of our main molecular biology course. I set up the course notebook each term, assign TAs and enroll students. The other instructors and I work together within LabArchives. We just make one notebook per semester and organize it by assignments. If I need to make a change across all six sections, I can do that with a few clicks. 

How did your study originate?

We try to integrate everything we do and LabArchives was something new that we decided to try. We figured since we were trying something new,  we should collect some data on the experience. We did pre and post course student attitudinal surveys, which are a typical component of educational research. We also held focus groups and coded responses to questions.

What’s your study all about?

It’s less about students’ research and more about their perceptions of using electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) like LabArchives in combined undergraduate/graduate labs. Our strongest finding was that in the pre-course surveys about half of students said they’d prefer to work on paper and half said they’d prefer to work digitally. After sixteen weeks, there was a clear shift in favor of working with an ELN. We’re trying to explore that shift a bit more through focus groups. 

What have you learned from the focus groups?

Students like being able to access their data later on and like being able to pop things into their lab reports really easily no matter where they are. One student even mentioned that they often check out the protocol they’ll be working with in the lab session on their bus ride over (when we’re on campus, of course). We’ve found that students like visual tools like videos to show them how to use the ELN. It seems to be all about streamlining the workflow and giving students enough info to get started but not too much to overwhelm them.

How has COVID-19 affected your courses?

Basically Spring Break happened and then COVID-19 happened. No one came back to campus and we had to move online quickly. Online is obviously not an ideal way to teach lab courses but we aren’t in best practice mode. Like Tim Gunn would say, we’ve got to ‘make it work’. We wanted to continue teaching with as little disruption as possible; LabArchives has been very helpful in that regard.

How so?

The data collection piece of lab experiments is hard to replicate at home. Luckily we had three years worth of past students’ data stored in LabArchives. I went back into those student notebooks and pulled data for our current students to work with. We do a lot of western blotting, for example. I pulled representative western blots from old student notebooks and provided that real data to our current, remote students to work off of. We also did this with tissue culture-based experiments (which definitely can’t be done at home). 

Jordan Hall where the Biotechnology program is housed at NCSU.

What did tissue culture experiments end up looking like this semester?

We gave students two sets of microscope images of CHO cells expressing fluorescent proteins. We provided them with quantitative plate reader data (fluorescence reading units) which they then used to calculate ratios of photo-conversion. They’ve been able to use this real data to go through the analysis even though they can’t do the collection themselves. The main thing is that the bigger picture exercise and analysis can still take place. The whole reason we’ve been able to do this is because we had so much student data saved in LabArchives. That repository aspect has been so valuable for us. It’s been like online shopping almost. We can quickly search for the student data we need and don’t have to go into the lab to access it either.

How is the make-it-work model going?

It’s matching our weekly workflow as closely as possible. Our team is able to stay at home but still oversee the students’ work. There hasn’t been an additional learning curve for us, our TAs or our students – everyone is still logging in to the same place and submitting work the same way, which has given everyone a certain level of comfort.

What is the fall term looking like?

We’re not sure yet but even if courses are still fully online in the fall, an online lab notebook is a great option. Google Docs can work but they don’t provide the repository aspect I mentioned before. If you wanted to pull up all of your students’ western blots, for example, you’d need to open each Google Doc one by one. The ability to sort and search within LabArchives saves so much time.

If you don’t have student data to use in the remote classroom, don’t fret. Stay tuned for a LabArchives announcement related to just that!