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How to teach biology, chemistry or physics with the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on September 27th, 2010 @ 11:53 am

People often associate electronic lab notebooks with research.  That’s not surprising since that’s mostly what they’re used for!  But there is also  growing interest in using electronic lab notebooks as teaching tools, in both  universities and secondary schools.  For example, Dave Lunt at the University of Hull has an excellent presentation on using ELNs for student research monitoring.  In this post I’m going to go through setting up eCAT for teaching a class in science subjects like biology, chemistry and physics.  We’ve made a video that covers the same ground, so if you’d rather watch the video, here it is!

http://www.axiope.com/electronic-lab-notebook/video/ecat_3.3.0/tutorials/teaching/teaching.flv

The scenario

To make it practical, let’s use a real  scenario.  Say you’re teaching Biology 101.  You’ve got 20 students enrolled in the autumn semester.  As part of the course the students will be doing some exercises and also carrying out some experiments.  Some of these will involve group work, and some will be individual work, for assessment.  You want to use the electronic lab notebook as an environment where students can document experiments and carry out exercises, and you can see their work and comment on it.  You want some of the students’ work to be private — only you and each student have access to it.  And you want some of the work to be accessible more widely so that groups of students can work together.

Setting up eCAT

You can use either of the group versions of eCAT — Team Hosted, which Axiope hosts on our servers, or Install, which is installed on your server.  To get started you login as admin.

Both versions of eCAT come preloaded with a Projects folder and a Users folder. You’ll be using both of these folders.  Here a a few screenshots of eCAT illustrating some of the actions described below:

  1. To get started, click on the admin tab and then Users, and set up user accounts for the students who will be taking the class this semester/term.  When you do this each user will automatically get a home folder with their name; these will appear under the Users section of the record tree.
  2. When each user logs in, they can create whatever they want in their home folder and only they (and you the admin) can see it.
  3. Staying in the admin section, click on Groups.
  4. Create an All Users group, and add every user to this group.
  5. Create four working groups (we’ll call them Group A, Group B, Group C and Group D) with five students each; these are the groups that will be working together on experiments.
  6. Now go back to the record tree and, under Projects, create a new folder for Group A. To do this, click on “Create New” and then select “Create as Owner” after selecting the Folder class type. Call this folder, “Group A Materials”.
  7. Click on advanced Sharing, and give Group A view, edit, append and download permissions.
  8. Then create a child record under the Group A Materials folder – an Experiment.  But this time click on “Create as Parent”. Then also create a Document record in the same way.
  9. Do the same to create Materials folders and Experiment and Document records for Groups B, C and D.
  10. Now go back to the Record Tree, click  the Projects folder, and create a child folder called ‘Course materials’.
  11. Use this folder to place materials you want  people to look at.  For example, you may want to create a set of instructions for using eCAT during the course.  You can do this by creating a new document in this Course Materials folder.  You also can import pre-existing documents, spreadsheets and images, for example you could import an ‘Initial Materials’ document. Give all groups view permission for this folder so that they can see all the course work.

Using eCAT

It’s that simple!   eCATis now  set up and ready to go.  How you use it is of course up to you.  But here are some simple examples of the kinds of things you can do with the set up you now have in place.

  1. Document experiments.  Each individual student and each group can use the Experiment record that has been set up for the group to document their first experiment.  As shown below, the Experiment record already is divided into fields for Method, Procedure, Objective, Results, Discussion, Conclusion and Comments.  For the Group records, you may want to set up some standard procedures (see below for more on this) to ensure that things are well organized and recorded.  For example, you could have a rule that each time a member of a group makes an entry in a Group record they should place their initials by the entry.
  2. Comment on experiments.  As admin, you have edit permission on all the records that have been created.  So, you can comment on the experiments  the groups and the individuals carry out.  Just do this in the Comments field, and it will be clear that the comment has been made by you.
  3. Create new records.  You, individual students and groups can create new records, as needed, as the semester proceeds. You/they can create new experiment and document records.  You/they can also create other kinds of records from the more than 20 preexisting templates that eCAT comes with.  And both you and they can also create records of your own design using eCAT’s class creator function.
  4. Communicate.  You and the students can use eCAT to communicate about Biology 101.  You can send messages about assignments, deadlines, etc., and you can also create tasks.  In both cases these can be addressed to individuals or to groups, and in both cases you can include links to eCAT records, so for example you could send a message to Group A about a particular experiment they are working on with a note that you have made a comment on it, and you can link to the experiment in the message.

Instructing the class on how to use eCAT

At the start of the course you’ll want to introduce eCAT to the class.  There are various ways to do that, and you’ll probably want to use some combination of:

  1. Having everyone view the Getting started with eCAT video, on their own and/or as a class so that there is an opportunity for questions and discussion.
  2. Preparing some specific instructions covering how you have set eCAT up, how you plan to use it and standard procedures to follow, and making these available, e.g. in a powerpoint presentation (which can be attached to an eCAT record) or a document placed in eCAT.
  3. A demo of eCAT.

Getting eCAT ready for reuse next semester

Your eCAT  licenses are reusable.  So if you have 25 licenses, and a class of 20 – 25 students, you can keep reusing the licenses each time you have a new group of students.  So, when the semester is finished, you simply delete from the User list the students who have just finished the course, freeing up the licenses for the students in next semester’s course or another course.

Try for yourself

Now you’ve seen how it works; why not try eCAT yourself?  You can sign up for a 30 day free trial here.

Notifications in the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on September 6th, 2010 @ 9:03 am

Increasingly electronic lab notebooks are about more than just recording experimental data.   They are tools, platforms, environments — call them what you will — that support collaboration among groups of scientists.  Sometimes those scientists are in the same lab or at least the same building.  Sometimes they are spread out around the world.  Regardless of the number of people involved and their locations, productive collaboration is not possible without effective communication.  So the new breed of ELNs needs to include good mechanisms for communicating.

With this in mind, Version 3.3 of eCAT, which was released in July, has a new notifications system.  It’s designed to be

  • simple
  • easy to use
  • closely integrated with eCAT’s collaborative research capabilities

A simple system

There are two kinds of notifications in eCAT — messages and tasks — and they are exceedingly simple.  They look just like emails, and in fact they are  kind of an  email system which is internal to eCAT.

Easy to use

The notifications tab appears at the top of each eCAT page.  To send a message or a task, you start by clicking on the notifications tab.  Then you choose create task or create message.  If you choose create message the following screen appears:

Then enter who you want to send your message to — one or more members of the group you are working with — fill in the subject, compose your message and press send.  Pretty simple — just like an email.  And a red flag will appear on each recipient’s notifications tab, so they know that there is a new message waiting for them to read.

Enhances research collaboration

So far so simple and easy, but the neatest thing is how notifications in eCAT integrate with the rest of eCAT.  To see how that works let’s look at another screenshot, this time of a task which has been composed and is about to be sent:

You will see that there is a link to the mouse colony experiment, the experiment I want Nigel, Jonathan, and Leigh to comment on.  And actually this is a record like other eCAT records, so you have the full power of eCAT’s editor at your disposal in composing this task.  In addition to making a link to the mouse colony experiment, you could have linked to web pages, inserted images, included more complicated formatting, etc.  So you’re able not just to send isolated messages, but to create messages and tasks which are tightly integrated with the work you and your colleagues are doing. eCAT provides an integrated environment for collaboration and communicating about that collaboration.  That’s useful when, as in this example, you are doing joint research.  It’s also useful for instructors who are using eCAT as a teaching tool.  You can send messages and set tasks for an individual student, a group of students, or the whole class.  And, with tasks, as shown in the above screenshot, you can set priorities and due dates.

So there’s an introduction to eCAT’s notifications system, and how it can help you and your group enhance your collaboration through better communication.