This Lab Went Paperless And Saved $30,000

The $105 lab manual once required for a popular NC State biotechnology course is now history.

With a grant from the NC State Sustainability Fund, several biotechnology instructors successfully piloted a switch to electronic lab notebooks (ELNs), which improved the student learning experience, provided career-ready experience and boosted affordability.

During the fall 2016 semester, 281 biotechnology students in several courses began using the online system in lieu of purchasing the $105 textbook and $5 notebook. Collectively, that avoided an estimated $30,000 in student purchases, as well as 63,000 pages of paper.

“We were updating our course and anticipated having to make a new paper laboratory manual that all of the students would then need to purchase,” said Stefanie Chen, a teaching postdoctoral scholar in the biotech program. “In addition, the biotechnology industry is moving toward all electronic records. It seemed like the right time to take advantage of current technology and move in a paperless direction.”

The electronic system enables students to upload and annotate lab images, receive instant updates to lab protocol and access the program from any internet-capable device. In an anonymous post-course survey, students indicated that the online system helped them learn scientific concepts, increase confidence and improve note-taking during labs.

The switch also translated to better grades. With the same course instructors, students using the electronic system achieved higher grades on the first lab report than the previous semester’s students who used paper notebooks.

“The students really like it,” Chen said. “When polled at the end of the semester, the vast majority said they would choose electronic over paper.”

To kickstart this sustainability project, the Sustainability Fund financed the purchase of lab laptops, as well as the system’s user fees during the pilot program. It’s likely that future students will pay the user fee, but currently it’s $13 ‒ a fraction of the previous textbook’s cost.

“We will keep using [the system] in the same courses as last year and plan to add a few more as well,” Chen said. “We have already had a few alumni who tell us they use an electronic notebook system in their new jobs, and we expect to see that trend continue. ”