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Transforming the Chemistry Lab Notebook with Elements (TM)


Dr. Layne A. Morsch The University of Illinois Springfield, Department of Chemistry, MS HSB 314, One University Plaza, Springfield, IL 62703


We have been using Elements™ in organic chemistry lab to increase engagement and interaction with undergraduate students. Elements™ is a modular and cloud-based scientific collaboration platform. It allows for facile template construction by lab instructors to disseminate laboratory procedures. The sharing of notebooks between students and instructors allows for information exchange, submission of work and grading all in one package. The web-based platform works across devices and allows for uploading of spectra, images, videos, spreadsheets, pdfs and integration of text editing and structure drawing. Student attitudes relating to integration of this new technology will be presented.

ELN Background

As scientists, we all value the skill of maintaining a complete and functional laboratory notebook. This has been discussed extensively in the literature.2 They have great value as a record of work done in research situations and as a tool to teach students how to prepare to be a professional scientist. More recently, transitioning to electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN) in teaching situations has been discussed.3 The communication and organization value of these ELNs has been highlighted. This work sets out to identify how one example of an ELN can work within a typical teaching workflow.


Why Elements?

During the summer of 2013 I began to incorporate technology into my lecture courses using the newly released ChemDraw for iPad app.  During winter semester 2014 we began to pilot test PerkinElmer’s new “cloud collaboration platform” Elements in place of traditional paper laboratory notebooks. I was excited for the workflow of this type of product as my past experience with electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN) showed them to be much more focused on data organization and control of data than on collaboration1. This interaction between student and instructor, lab researcher and mentor has the potential to increase communication between scientists as not just a replacement for a paper lab notebook, but an improvement on these traditional methods of documenting science.

Since working with an electronic format significantly alters the typical instructor and student workflows, I felt it would be beneficial to show examples of these workflows.


Workflow for Instructors

Create a new experiment

            When creating a new experiment, a template may be used or the experiment can be created from a blank document.



Add in all the elements you wish to deliver to the students

            Elements can be used to deliver the laboratory materials that might otherwise be delivered through a campus copy center, bookstore or LMS (ex. Blackboard or Moodle). These can be placed in the template as pdf files or as editable document files that allow the students to type on them. In addition to instruction delivery, blank sections or sections with small prompts can be placed to help the students learn how to organize laboratory information. For example, on a typical experiment, the following sections may be included: instructions, prelab questions, images of apparatus to be assembled, experimental procedure, data tables, postlab questions, spectral analysis, discussion and a grading rubric.


             (High Resolution Image)

Save this experiment as a template

            By saving as a template, this allows initiation of new experiments using this set of materials exactly as they have been prepared.

Share the template with students

By copying and pasting email addresses, collaborators can be invited to share your materials. Options exist to allow others to edit the materials, which would be very useful for research collaborations and is also the way students must share their notebooks with the instructor.  However, when sharing a template, students must be invited to share with the “can view” option enabled. Otherwise any edits they make will change the template for all other students that use it. It is important to share templates when you have many students working in the lab. If an experiment was shared instead, all edits would happen on a single document and it would be very difficult to determine what each student contributed. This would have great usefulness in combined research projects where students are working together as a team. That way as each student worked on the project, all others collaborators would be aware of the work of the remainder of the team.




After the experiment is complete, feedback and grades can be given directly to students

            A scoring sheet or rubric can be created and added to the template of each experiment with the points available for each required section. These have been shown to be effective at enhancing reliability of scoring performance as well as promoting learning.4,5



Workflow for Students

Students create a notebook and share with the instructor.

            It is important that the student give the instructor “can edit” permission, otherwise it will be impossible for the instructor to give feedback on the student’s work. Each experiment the student creates throughout the term is kept within this notebook and since the notebook has been shared, the instructor can see and interact with all of the student work for the course. If Elements is being used for multiple classes, this allows the students to easily keep each class work separate and shared with the appropriate instructor.       

Students create an experiment

Each experiment can be created from a template within the shared folder. This means the student only needs to remember to share their work one time at the beginning of the semester. The instructor will only have to share once for each template they have students use.



Students can edit their experiment during lab

            There are many ways that students are able to edit the experiment to make sure that it contains a complete record of all the work they performed before, during and after lab. Working with computers, tablets and smart phones during lab requires a “safe” location for students to keep their electronics in lab. In our lab, the fume hoods were utilized for all chemical operations while the benchtops were saved for computing devices.



Add new elements

The template can be set up with several blank elements for students to use, but they can add their own elements as desired. For example, if the students take 3 pictures of TLC plates, they could add all three pictures to the experiment by using the attach file button, then they could be viewed by adding an image element.         



            The ChemDraw element includes a stoichiometry table that helps calculate amounts of reagents as well as yields of products. It automatically determines reactants and products based on the placement of chemicals relative to the reaction arrow in the reaction drawing.


            Edit the elements –

The students can write in the elements already provided to answer questions or to add their experimental protocol as the work is conducted during lab.


            Organize data into spreadsheets

            There is a spreadsheet element that allows students to organize their data within the experiment.



            Add media they create during lab



Students don’t need to “turn in” the experiment, once the folder is shared, the instructor can always see the student work

Students get immediate feedback and don’t have to wait for instructor to “return” graded lab report



Educational advantages

Using an electronic lab notebook has improved communication between students and lab instructors. The potential for students to forget to bring materials that need to be turned in is eliminated. It is also impossible for students to lose materials they work on as they are all stored on a server. The cycle of getting feedback to the students is faster as well. Typically students would turn in lab notebooks or reports the week following completion of an experiment. Then they would have to wait until lab the week after this to receive their graded reports back. Using Elements has allowed this process to be much faster as the students can view their graded reports immediately without waiting until the next class period.


Incorporation of grading rubrics into the templates helps students as they are working on their lab have clear guidelines for what they need to include in their lab reports.


Prepare for future careers

Most of our students are either interested in industrial employment upon graduation or careers in the health sciences. These positions are incorporating electronic lab notebooks at much higher levels than has been seen in academia to this point. If we want to prepare our students for these jobs, we need to help them become more used to archiving and communicating their work electronically.


Expanding what a lab notebook can be – media

We began to get used to the capabilities of using a digital lab notebook to replace what we used to do within our paper lab notebooks. We also began to explore new ways to incorporate media that would have been difficult or impossible under the old paradigm. One example is inclusion of thin layer chromatography (TLC) information in the notebook. In earlier times, we would attach our TLC plates to our lab notebooks. This has mostly been discontinued since it poses safety risks carrying around chemicals in students’ bags.  This technique was replaced by drawing a picture of TLC plates into the lab notebooks. This could be done quickly to give a rough estimate of what was seen, or much more slowly with careful measurements that would allow for calculation of Rf from the drawn plates. Several methods have been used to denote differences in appearance of the plate under UV light and/or after being prepared with a stain such as I2 or phosphomolybdic acid. However, with Elements and the availability of cameras on iPads and phones, all our students are able to take pictures of their TLC plates and incorporate those pictures directly into their lab reports.



Figure 1. Images taken by students during lab Fall 2014. Images included in student Elements reports. (Left to right) TLC plate stained with iodine, TLC plate being visualized under UV light and the organic phase of a separation during the process of a reaction.


Figure 2.

Video of a melting point taken with iPhone and uploaded into Elements.


Grading and feedback

Grading is now done within the lab notebook environment. A rubric is included with each experiment that gives students clear expectations for what needs to be included in their experimental write-up. These rubrics are designed with spaces to input student scores on each component of the lab. In addition to filling in these rubrics, it is also easy to add comments on each “Element”. This is typically accomplished by adding the comments in a color that is different from any that the student has used.


Student evaluation

PerkinElmer sent a user interface and usability expert, Jennifer McCormick from User Experience, to run a focus group with the students using Elements in class. Her top findings through surveys and interviews of the students included:

The sharing and collaboration function of Elements is well received within both the learning and research contexts.

Users reported Elements to be generally easy to use, though they struggled to understand how to rearrange the elements within an experiment.

They requested incorporation of spreadsheets (that didn’t exist at the time) and more reliable data saving.


The issue with data saving came about as in the early beta version of Elements, the login would time out without alerting the user. Students would type in a few sentences or even paragraphs before realizing that they were no longer connected and that writing was all lost. In a subsequent update, connections do not disconnect as soon and saving occurs at a much more often and so students have not continued to have this problem during the current semester. 


Figure 3. Results of summer 2014 interview/survey on using Elements at the University of Illinois Springfield during organic chemistry lab (n=5)


While students felt that most activities were fairly easy to accomplish, their overall perceived usefulness was rated at 4.7 on a 7-point scale with 7 being highly useful. This was before the incorporation of spreadsheets and the stoichiometry table that now accompanies the ChemDraw window, so it will be interesting to re-assess the student attitudes at the end of the current semester to see if these improvements have any effect. It is also of interest that students in graduate research labs at two other universities rated Elements higher in every category. This is presumably due to a greater familiarity with keeping laboratory notebooks and exchange of this information within their research team.




Elements has successfully replaced the carbon-copy paper lab notebooks that were previously used in our labs. Use of a digital, web-based platform has enhanced the rate of communication between students and instructors. The definition of what a lab notebook is and what type of data is contained in a lab notebook is expanding to include more media. Students have responded moderately well to the incorporation of this new technology into the curriculum. The lab instructors in our program are continuing to work on how to adapt our teaching methods to best take advantage of Elements and are encouraged that our students may be better prepared for working with technology in their careers.



This work has been supported by PerkinElmer with special recognition to Hans Keil, Nicolas Encina and Brian Gilman for their oversight of the pilot studies. I would like to thank the lab instructors that worked on this project Dave Szabo and Tanya Tan. I would also like to thank the students in Organic Chemistry 1 and 2 labs who are reasonably enthusiastic to try all the new tools that I bring to my courses. All student research was carried out under UIS Institutional Review Board Protocol 13-087.   




  1. Rudolphi, Felix and Goossen, Lukas J. Electronic Laboratory Notebook: The Academic Point of View Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, 2012, 52 (2), 293-301.
  2. Pendley, Bradford D. Keeping a Scientific Notebook: The Lego Exercise, Journal of Chemical Education, 1997, 74 (9), 1065.

Renfrew, Malcolm M. Writing the Laboratory Notebook, Journal of Chemical Education, 1989, 66 (2), A74.

Eisenberg, Anne. Keeping a laboratory notebook, Journal of Chemical Education, 1982, 59 (12), 1045.

Latreille, H. and Chavance, M. An excellent laboratory notebook, Journal of Chemical Education, 1971, 48 (12), 846.

  1. Hibbert, DBrynn. Experiences with LabTrove, a researcher-centric ELN: Undergraduate possibilities and Twitter. Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 2014, 147 (451/452), 12-23.

Shee K, Strong M, Guido NJ, Lue RA, Church GM, Viel A. Research, Collaboration, and Open Science Using Web 2.0. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 2010, 11(2):130-134.

Iyer, Rupa and Kudrle, William. Implementation of an Electronic Lab Notebook to Integrate Research and Education in an Undergraduate Biotechnology Program, Technology Interface International Journal, 2012, 12(2), 5-12.

  1. Jonsson, Anders, and Gunilla Svingby. The use of scoring rubrics: Reliability, validity and educational consequences. Educational research review , 2007, 130-144.
  2. Allen, Deborah, and Kimberly Tanner. Rubrics: tools for making learning goals and evaluation criteria explicit for both teachers and learners. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 2006, 197-203.



12/08/14 to 12/10/14


Bob Belford's picture

Hi Layne,

Thank you for sharing your work with the Elements ELN.  Could you tell us a bit more about PerkinElmer’s new “cloud collaboration platform”? I went to  and it seemed “elements” is more oriented towards research than teaching.  Is there a site devoted to teaching uses of the ELN?

You state something along the lines of most ELNs (Electronic Laboratory Notebooks) tend to be more focused on data organization and control, in contrast to collaboration.  I am going to assume that you are a proponent of collaborative activities in education labs, and I would like to know more about how educators could use this in collaborative teaching lab environments.  What kind of things could we do, that would not have been possible otherwise.

Also, is the ELN directly integrated with the dataflow from any instruments (IR, NMR?)  It would seem to me that one of the greatest advantages of an ELN is the ability to capture the complete instrumental record, not just a chart/graph, but all the instrumental control parameters, the so-called metadata.  Does Elements directly connect to any instruments?

I also have another simple question, which is, how large are your lectures, and who teaches your labs?  TAs? Faculty?

Thank you for sharing this interesting work with us.


Bob Belford

Layne Morsch's picture


Thanks for the questions. Some of them I can answer well, some may be harder as I don't work for PerkinElmer. I can address things I would like them to do, but not necessarily things they may be planning or working on.

The first advantage for educators using Elements is the simplicity. I could see this being used even at the pre-college level as the instructor can create an experiment with only one or two text boxes if desired. I would envision a high school teacher creating an experiment where the students would have one text box to describe what they did, one spread sheet to report their data and one more text box to answer questions. Maybe a picture or video would be added in to enhance their work.

That is a great question about collaborative activities. I discussed the way that I am using "inviting collaborators" to grade labs. Another way they could be used is in group projects. One of the group members could create an experiment or notebook (think of notebooks as a folder of experiments) and share with "can edit" capabilities to the other group members and the instructor. That way, all group members are working together in one document or series of documents.
Another way the collaborative nature of Elements could be employed would be with interdisciplinary projects that involve more than one instructor with different expertise. With the materials shared with both instructors, they could each comment on their individual sections.

This connected data flow doesn't exist at the moment, though it has been part of the discussions I have had over the past year (that can be read as "this is something I told them I would like to see"). Several questions came up when it was discussed relating to spectral processing capabilities as many instruments use different and powerful processing techniques. I'm thinking immediately of MS, NMR and X-ray diffraction. Perhaps IR and UV-Vis spectroscopy are fairly simple to process. The second question revolved around proprietary vs. generic data formats. It was suggested that most instruments probably allow for exporting of data in a generic format, so this could be possible.

My lecture class is 57 students, these are broken up into lab sections of ~16 students each. I teach two of the labs this semester and we have a full-time instructor that teaches the other two. We do not employ TA's in our labs.


What are the costs for use of Elements and how are they handled?

Bob Belford's picture

Hi Layne,

Last year you presented a Newsletter article on using ChemDraw for iPad in your organic lecture,

My question sort of deals with integrated lab/lecture activities.  What devices are your students using to upload data to the Elements ELN?  Is each student using a different device, or do they share? Do you provide them, or is it BYOD?  Can they flick and share molecules, or data, from the ELN during collaborative lab activities? The way they did in collaborative lecture activities?

Are they using similar technologies in the lecture?  I would think that just using a similar technology (even just the user-interface) in a lab and lecture would have a positive effect on the student’s experience (with respect to connecting lessons from these two different aspects of the same course).

Thank you for sharing your work with us.


Layne Morsch's picture

The students in my class were required to have an iPad for class. The students could bring their own iPad or lease one from our ITS dept for the semester. Though this brings an extra cost to the course I tried to offest that cost by using an electronic version of the textbook that saved students $294 vs. buying the new paper text plus solutions manual. If we moved to an open resources textbook, that savings would completely offset the cost of an iPad.

We put the iPads to use in lecture with ChemDraw and Flick-to-Share as you referenced. Students would get one or more problems in class each day that they would Flick to me for participation points (~5% of total grade). I love the idea of being able to Flick your structures/reactions from that to Elements, the PerkinElmer people will have to see if that is something they could implement. It would be a great way of integrating the platform, but it doesn't exist yet. Many students used the iPads in lab for Elements, though some students preferred to bring in their own laptops. Elements also works on smartphones, but I think most students felt that was too small for keeping track of all their lab materials. I would occasionally see students enter some data or at least upload pictures from their phones during lab.

We also used the iPads with iSpartan app during lab to learn more about spectroscopy. Students in lab would import pdf's into Notability to annotate spectra and solve structure problems in lab, before uploading them to Elements or Blackboard. The Chairs! game app was introduced to students in lecture to help them with drawing substituted chair cyclohexane structures. We used Explain Everything on the iPads for lecture class to create video vignettes on organic chemistry topics. These are some of the ways I integrated technology across the lecture and lab courses.

There is a Free Trial, a Basic 6 month package ($135.00), and a Basic 1 year package ($240.00).
I had the same question. So I checked it out. I hope this helps.

Layne Morsch's picture

Yes, those are the current costs. I would hope to see a more affordable version for teaching labs, but I don't think I can say more about that yet.

Bob Belford's picture

Hi Layne,

In the figure “Exp 7 Oxidation of Fluorene” you have a bunch of element icons, in the upper right corner some have checkmarks, others numbers, others nothing.  What do they mean?

If you make a screencapture youtube video of your navigating “the elements” we could add it to the paper (or a comment), and that may make it easier for people in the future to see what you can do with Elements.

I have also found your citations to be of value.  There clearly is a lot going on in the world of ELNs. 



Layne Morsch's picture


I can give a quick clarification and can submit a video as soon as I am able. The small icons added to each element show how it is being used in the current experiment. If it is added to the experiment and there is no option to add another of the same element then it gets a check mark to show it has already been added. An example of this would be an abstract. There shouldn't be a necessity to have more than one abstract in an experiment, so it show up as a check mark. The number relates to the number of that type of element that are added. An example of this could be images, if someone added 3 pictures of TLC plates and a picture of their reaction mixture, there would be a 4 on the images element.

I'm glad the citations were helpful.