Integrating digital literacy into teaching

Interview with Prof. Dr. Georg Manolikakes from the RPTU Kaiserslautern

Prof. Dr. Georg Manolikakes studied chemistry and obtained his doctorate at the LMU with study visits to Oxford University and the Universite Paris-Sud. After holding positions at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, USA, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main, Georg August University Göttingen and Ruprecht Karls University Heidelberg, Manolikakes has been a professor at RPTU Kaiserslautern-Landau since 2017. His many awards include the Rhineland-Palatinate Teaching Prize 2022.

What exactly have you implemented in Kaiserslautern?

We introduced an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) at the institute and then integrated it into the course. In the winter semester 2022/23, we included the task for students to document at least one experiment with the ELN in a basic practical course, which in our case was an integrated synthesis practical course in the fifth semester.

How did you go about it?

I already had the idea beforehand that I would like to incorporate ELN into teaching. Then in 2021, there was a call for proposals from the Chemical Industry Fund, which offers funding for new teaching formats once a year, with a focus on “Establishing aspects of digitalization in chemical/chemical engineering education”. We discussed this with our colleagues here and decided to apply. And it must have been a pretty good fit thematically, so we were awarded the contract. And for the application, I had of course already thought about how best to integrate it beforehand: not in the first hall internship, but in the second, for example. So the application gave us a kind of guideline on how we wanted to proceed.

The ELN itself – we opted for Chemotion – is hosted by the computer center. We did the installation here in the department, with support from KIT. The entire administration also runs in the department. We set up the ELN in such a way that, in principle, all groups can use it. That wasn’t trivial, but we had already thought about it beforehand. Sonja Herres-Pawlis from RWTH Aachen University also helped us a lot. Her working group is already using the ELN and she was able to provide us with a kind of blueprint that we used as a guide.

It will certainly look a little different for everyone, but it is definitely advisable to think about it a little beforehand.

What does it look like in practice?

At the beginning, students are given an introduction, both practical, i.e. how to use the lab journal, and general: what data management is, what FAIR data is and why you should do it at all.

To this end, students receive a personal account for the ELN, which they can use for as long as they have an account here at the university. In principle, this means until they complete their doctoral thesis.

In the first year, some were not so satisfied, partly because the experiment they did with it was not optimized for ELN.  Although it has to be said that any experiment can actually be documented with it. But it was a new system in combination with an experiment that didn’t work well – there was room for improvement. Now, in the second run with an adapted test, things have gone much better.

On the other hand, there was the problem that in the first year, the students documented the results by hand in the lab and then added them to the ELN in the evening. This was of course an unnecessary extra effort. 

Right from the start, we wanted to procure tablets that students could use in the lab. The devices were part of the fund support. But that was towards the end of Corona, when IT devices were no longer available. So they were not available in the first year. In the second year, however, the students hardly needed any more tablets because they had all purchased one.

What were the original motivations for this?

I first worked with an electronic laboratory notebook in 2004 during an internship in industry. This has been common practice in industry for a long time. That’s why we wanted students to start documenting their experiments with ELNs as early as possible, because they will have to do it later anyway. 

In my working group, we have been working with ELN since 2018 when we came to Kaiserslautern, so we wanted the students to have already gained initial experience with ELN before they start their Master’s thesis. Because I’ve noticed that with lab journals created by hand, something is always missing somewhere at the end, can no longer be found or is no longer legible.

And the idea behind it was also that the students who get to know an ELN and research data management (RDM) during their studies will gradually introduce it to other working groups.

Did ELNs spread in Kaiserslautern as a result?

We opted for Chemotion as an ELN because it is an open source system and anchored in a DFG-funded consortium. It may not be the best for everyone, but in my opinion it is one of the most useful ELNs for universities. In organic chemistry, there is another working group that has at least introduced Chemotion.

In physical chemistry, several groups are using eLabFTW, which is probably better suited to their type of research. We are currently working on parallel operation of the two ELNs so that data can be moved back and forth.

And there is also Open Enventory by Felix Rudolphi. This is also open source and, as far as I know, is used in teaching in Oldenburg.

What about FAIRness in your working group?

My goal is that when we publish, we make all data openly available in repositories. We have started to do this, but it will take a while to make the transition. It takes a bit more effort to prepare the publication. And there are also a few projects that are still ongoing and will be completed without us publishing completely FAIR.

But my goal is to upload all the data for all newly started projects to a repository, probably Chemotion.  We also want to make all substances that are produced openly available via “The Molecule Archive” at KIT.

Let’s put it the same way as the DFG does in principle: Unless there are important reasons against it in individual cases, we publish FAIR. We don’t (yet) know whether our substances will ever be used for anything. But at least the data and substances that were produced with public funding are also publicly available. 

Thank you very much for the interview.