Future scientists are not prepared for Smart Labs

“It appears that many countries’ education systems have failed to adapt to the new demands the technological world brings”

Phoebe Chubb is a 3rd-year student at the University of Exeter, with a keen interest in the development of Internet of Things technology and the importance of its implementation in higher education. In this blog, she explores why electronic lab notebooks need to be integrated into university courses.

There has recently been an increasing emphasis on connectivity as typified in the discussions of smart homes and cities. Now the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions are being implemented into the laboratory environment, creating smart laboratories.

The move to go digital has captured the interest of scientists in both academia and industry, and researchers globally have begun to use an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN): a central online platform, to store their research data.

This software is not limited to researchers, there is a call for this enabling software to be integrated into the teaching environment internationally to improve students education and ensure that future scientists are versed with the software the will use in the future. The students of today are familiar with the digital world, they were born into it.

Prensky’s term ‘digital natives’ is often used to describe the generation who know no world without technology. He writes that students have changed “radically” and that “today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach”.

On the whole, it appears that many countries’ education systems have failed to adapt to the new demands the technological world brings. These ‘digital natives’ know how to maintain an online social presence, store data online and recover information; yet are falling behind when it comes to technological literacy.

Students, even those studying STEM subjects at university lack key programming skills, machine understanding, AI or cybersecurity awareness, all of which are desired qualities now and will become required qualities in the near future. With the implementation of the IoT into everyday life, academics and education officials must address the deficit in technological literacy in the younger generation.

I asked Dr. Uwe Lohmeier, head of the Gläsernes Labor Akademie, GLA, at the research campus Berlin-Buch which provides business orientation courses for scientists and technicians in Life Sciences why ELN integration into education is important.

He told me that “it is crucial that students being educated in all branches of life sciences become familiar with (validated) electronic systems for handling data”. He furthered that “becoming familiar with the current/future systems must become a regular part of education programs”.

“Academics and education officials must address the deficit in technological literacy in the younger generation”

I then asked Theo Hornsey, an undergraduate studying MSci Natural Sciences at the University of Southampton what he thought could be gained by ELN implementation. He responded that an ELN “cuts out the middleman in many approaches, i.e. it can’t be lost or forgotten as it is stored on the cloud”. Furthering that “having access to lab books everywhere would be beneficial when it comes to revision as all resources would be centralised and therefore easier to access”.

Universities remain hesitant to adopt digital technologies and software into teaching strategies due to the cost of implementation and the disruption to traditional laboratory methods. With the move towards making laboratories smart, the pressure is on to adapt to the changes in digital software and embrace the opportunities it creates.

With artificial intelligence (AI) and lab automation on the horizon, universities might be missing the opportunity to ensure a gradual implementation of digital tech in the lab instead of a rushed implementation later. Some ELNs can be used alongside a Laboratory Execution System: an IoT solution that allows the connection of existing laboratory equipment to the cloud or server.

Universities would spend more short term on these solutions but over a long term period, the investment is likely to pay off. When changes are inevitable early adaptation is usually advantageous, an ELN will not only ensure that students have the skills they need for future employment, but it will also enhance the university’s reputation, producing better scientists.

Digital economies are expected to be the dominant driving force of growth for years to come and in order to ensure graduates are competitive on the global job market, universities need to ensure digital literacy by implementing digital software training and usage into university courses.

Implementing ELNs will ensure future scientists have the skills to work in the labs of the future and in turn stimulate a new wave of research and discoveries.

Author: Phoebe Chubb