Teacher Tips: Using Pivot Interactives for an Online Science Notebook

December 10, 2021

Welcome to Teacher Tips, a blog series by Linda Detwiler, our customer success manager and former chemistry and physics teacher. In an effort to increase the newsletter access to teachers, we have moved the longer messages out and added them to our blog. Join us for your weekly tips and tricks for all of your classroom needs.

Close your eyes and picture your lab notebook from college. 

Mine was a 200-page “carbonless”-copy legal pad that smelled of hydrochloric acid, acetone, coffee, and tears. (Thanks P.Chem for that last salty addition. I’ll hopefully forget you one day!) When I moved into teaching, I mimicked this experience: my middle school students had to maintain spiral bounds that we taped the spirals on to keep them from linking together. My high schoolers had a spiral notebook as well. By AP, they had spiral notebooks AND a composition notebook. 

Quick math: according to Amazon, a 6-pack of 80-page spiral notebooks weighs 3.1 pounds. So, we’re looking at 0.5 pounds each. At my worst, I had 6 classes of 30 students in each. That’s 180 notebooks. That’s 90 pounds of empty notebooks. Add in foldables, additional layers, addendums, paper clips, staples… it added up to a full upper body workout any time I wanted to grade a lab. Then, think about all of the flipping and stacking and piles of work… physical lab notebooks are simply not sustainable.

Enter: the online lab notebook. 

It’s weightless; easy to collect, grade, and return; no food or chemical residue; and it’s VERY portable, making it even easier to grade on the go. But did you know that Pivot activities can be PERFECT for an online lab notebook? Let’s deep dive into this.

#1. First, what do you mean “online lab notebook?”

I mean something like this. This is an activity called my “Lab Notebook.” 

  1. Any time I give a lab, I just hand my students a lab sheet. These are the same lab handouts I’ve used since the dawn of time (or the dawn of my course, whichever comes first).
  2. Then, I make a copy of this activity in my library and rename it for that given lab. 
  3. I then assign this renamed copy to the students in Pivot Interactives. My students will use the template to record their work, just like a lab notebook. 

It’s simply a generic and reusable template. I made this one to follow my lab notebook expectations, but you could make yours follow ANY outline you want. And, the best part: making this activity took me 15 minutes. (I spent more time editing the grammar than I did writing the activity.) 

#2. Who would use this?

Any teacher who is tired of carrying milk crates of labs to and from their car. My template above is for AP Physics 1. Now let’s look at this template: it’s for my standard chemistry students and it follows an ENTIRELY different format. It even has different scoring guides. 

The nice thing about using a Pivot activity for your lab notebook is that any changes you make are SUPER easy and you can save them for use in any class. You can even share them with a colleague.

#3. Okay, Linda. That’s great. But, why Pivot and not a Google Doc? Or Form?

Fair question: let’s compare them.

Any time I talk to a teacher about making their own science notebook online, it becomes a question of “what tools will you use?” 

  • Well, I’ll house the activity in Google Classroom as a Google Slide deck.
  • The students will get the questions on a Google Doc.
  • They will upload their pictures to the Doc… or maybe Google Classroom… or maybe a Drive… or a Drawing? Haven’t decided yet.
  • They’ll stream their data into some other platform entirely, then download the CSV file and upload it into Sheets, then make the graph (which is a full day of lesson plans just teaching them to make the graph).
  • Oh, then the graph needs to be downloaded and added to the Doc. Or will I attach ANOTHER thing to Classroom?
  • Anything that needs to be autograded will need to be done in Forms, and that has to stand alone. They can’t edit my questions there, but I’m limited in what I can ask.

Seems like a lot of moving parts. Good thing you can do all of that in one activity in one place in Pivot Interactives. In Pivot, every one of these is done in a single activity. Nothing to separate out: it’s a one-stop shop.

#4. Alright, you convinced me. Now, when should I be doing this? I should still have SOME paper labs, right?

The better question is when should you NOT?!?! If your students are entering a lab (or any discovery setting), you will want their analysis of the event. And, that analysis typically goes in a lab notebook. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Linda, they use PAPER lab notebooks in industry. I’m training future scientists! Even within industry, physical lab notebooks are going away and online lab notebooks are coming to power. This means that there is no longer the excuse of “that’s how they do it in science.” As a chemist, I can tell you: it’s not paper. Heck, the internet was INVENTED so that CERN scientists could share data and get rid of notebooks…

Paper notebooks are less secure. They’re easily lost or stolen, leading to decades of work being lost. They can’t be shared with a colleague. They’re heavy and take up a lot of space. They can even transport harmful pathogens and chemicals, meaning they can’t really leave the lab that they’re in. Not to mention, if they write ANYTHING for a journal or publication, it will need to be digital. Let’s face it: paper is no longer the best way.

Oh, but they’ll need (insert tech tool) training and it’s so important to learn that in high school! Nope. I have used countless different tools in chemistry lab (and even did some work in a biology lab this summer) and not ONCE did I touch Excel. Most of the graphs and charts made were made in the native app that came with the equipment. I took notes scribbled on scraps of paper and then moved them to the computer where I was typing data into proprietary tools and programs. Heck, simply due to the age of the computer operating systems, most of them can’t even run Google products because they are simply that out of date. (The cell sorter in particular that we used ran on Windows XP… yeah… from 2001.)

But, I NEED to teach them to maintain their records because their employer won’t! No, you don’t and yes they will. That employer will have very strict rules and regulations about data and privacy; they will do extensive training. In fact, your pre-teaching may need to be UNLEARNED in order for the student to be successful. You could be doing more harm than good. 

Not only will your students benefit from having everything in one place, but YOU will benefit as well. There is less for you to click on, track down, and hopefully less to grade! Don’t just make it easier for the kids: think about yourself. Be selfish. Do it the easier way.

#5 How will I do it? 

That’s really up to you. If you’re done with those milk crates, this can be a one to one swap. If you still like that #ArmDay workout, then this could be great for labs where you use sensors or you have a lot of data to analyze. I would say begone with the notebooks, but that’s just me. 

I have a few templates here for you to look at, but these are bland starting points: you can EASILY make your own activity by going to your library and clicking the Create New Activity button. You can learn more about this by watching our “Modifying and Building” video on YouTube. Really, all you will need to do is copy and paste your existing lab rubric into Pivot. If you’re ready to start, see how I made my chemistry rubric into a Pivot activity in the video below. 

Standard Chemistry Template with CER Rubric

AP Physics 1 Template