Electrical Engineering Lab Reports
Writing a lab report is both a journey and a destination. During an experiment, you travel beyond the information in a textbook to a tactile environment. Here, you'll encounter unexpected characteristics about devices and concepts. Once the experiment is finished, you gain insight by analyzing your results. Performing experiments and writing lab reports provide hands-on experiences with engineering concepts and devices.
A lab report is an account of an experiment and what was discovered during the experiment. Typically, lab reports present data, discuss results, and provide conclusions. Some lab reports also describe the experiment and the procedures followed. As a student, lab experiments provide you with hands-on experience. Writing about your work in a lab then forces you to think logically about your data. For example, if you get unexpected results from a lab experiment, you'll speculate why you got those results in the report.
Project notebooks record your experiments and include information about the procedures you followed and your findings, as well as the successes and failures during an experiment itself. Notebooks also help you remember an experiment's details. If several weeks or months have passed since you actually completed an experiment, reading your entries from that time as you write your report will help you remember the details.
Readers may or may not know the details of a lab report. You shouldn't assume that they know a test well enough to fill in the report's blanks or that they know anything about the actual lab. Check with your instructor to know who your audience is. To help you describe your lab thoroughly, assume you're writing for a peer in your class, a student who knows what the instruments are, but who doesn't know any of the details of what you're doing. Or, assume you're writing for engineers who will use your information on a project. They may not be familiar with all the terms, so you should explain the lab to them.
Types of Lab Reports
Not all laboratory work requires a report. In fact, at times you may conduct an experiment and only document the numerical results. Other times, you'll elaborate on the experiment's details by formally presenting the procedures you followed and the equipment you used.
Another type of lab report is a project report. A project report is similar to a lab report in that they both present data. However, the difference between the two is often the amount of information conveyed. Project reports usually document more than results. Always check with your instructor to know what type of report you are required to write and what information you should include.
Lab reports typically cover a more narrow scope than project reports. For example, you may be asked to report only the answers to equations or a specific experiment's results. Lab reports, like their name, report work completed in a laboratory. The format of a lab report may be as simple as filling in blank lines on a worksheet or as complex as writing a full report with an abstract, procedures section, results section, summaries, and conclusions. Lab reports usually don't include references; however, as a student, you may refer to information from your textbook and lectures for some reports.
Project reports typically cover a broader scope than lab reports. In other words, this type of report presents a wider understanding of a specific topic. For example, instead of reporting only the resulting numbers of an experiment, a project report might supply background information or alternate solutions to a problem. Further, a project report does not necessarily document an experiment's results. It may describe a design or concept instead. Because project reports provide a "bigger picture," they usually include references.
Lab reports, like other kinds of writing, have an organized format. Organizing your report depends on how the report will be used and what headings your readers expect to find. For example, in industry, an engineer reading a report may be concerned only about a test's results and not the procedures or equipment used. On the other hand, a peer in your class reading your report may need to know what equipment you used or how you conducted your test.
Most lab reports follow a general format. However, you may be required to use different headings or to present your data in a different order. You may also be required to include or exclude specific information. Be sure to check with your instructor before using the format depicted here.
A lab report should always include a title clearly identifying the lab. A title should be descriptive and accurate, but not wordy, verbose or too terse. Discussions with several instructors show that no relationship exists between the length or literary quality of a title and the quality of a report. That is, a long title does not reflect how good the report is.
The abstract is extremely important because it helps readers decide what to read and what to pass over. The idea of the abstract is to give readers an honest evaluation of what's in the report, so they can quickly judge whether they should spend their valuable time reading the report. This section should give a true, brief description of what's in the report. The most important purpose of the abstract is to allow somebody to get a quick picture of what's in the paper and make a judgment.
The abstract is a brief summary of your report. Its length corresponds with the report's length. So, for example, if your report is eight pages long, you shouldn't use more than 150 words in the abstract. Generally, abstracts define the lab's objective and the procedures followed. They also include the lab's results.
The introduction provides a rationale for why you are doing an experiment and why the experiment is useful. It sets the framework or overview for the rest of the report. Here, you can also present the problem you are solving and summarize any related research.
An introduction should be an introduction. For instance, if you're going to give a speech, presumably the master of ceremonies will introduce you. He or she will give your name, perhaps provide your background, the title of what you'll talk about, and maybe why you have chosen to give the talk. An introduction to a report works the same way.
Under the experiment heading, you should describe each step of the lab test. Here, you might also document your goals and the steps taken to accomplish those goals. Basically, you are writing down everything you did during the experiment.
The experiment section tells readers what you wanted to accomplish (to measure a the voltage of a circuit, for instance), what steps you took to accomplish your goals, and what materials and equipment you used to accomplish your goals.
In the results, you should report what you found. Here, you may or may not include data interpretations. Some readers expect interpretations, or conclusions, to be a separate heading. Check with your instructor for what to include in your results.
The results section documents the test's outcome(s). Here, readers discover what the test measured with exact data. Calculations or equations may also be included.
Discussion & Conclusions
One of the goals of the discussion and conclusions section is to comment on the outcome of what you did. You can also speculate about the implications of what you found. Or even about the methods you used to obtain your results.
Typically, the Discussion & Conclusion sections demonstrate what was learned from the experiment. Here, what's been gained in understanding, both from the experiment itself and from any background reading in preparing the report are emphasized. For example, you might note that the procedure you used was a good method for measuring capacity. As a student, it's not likely that you'll be familiar with as many procedures as a practicing engineer, but you can learn about them by reading textbooks and published reports.
Lab reports may or may not include references. If you use information from the course textbook, cite it as a reference. You should also cite any IEEE, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. standards used in your report. Check with your instructor to determine which reference style you should use.
Graphics provide illustrated information to readers. In general, graphics are designed to make it easier for readers to understand your report. Deciding when to insert a graphic depends on the information you need to convey. For example, as you're writing your report, you find yourself struggling to describe a complex concept. Fitting your description within a few paragraphs is impossible, so you decide to create a graphic. Often, graphics are useful when concepts, designs, or processes are too complex or cumbersome to describe in written or oral form.
Perspectives on Lab Reports
In this section, you'll read about how electrical engineers think about lab reports.
Derek Lile, Electrical Engineering
Considering Your Audience
"When you write a technical report, how much do you assume the reader knows? I think normally, if you're writing, let's say, in the IEEE Transactions - you'd better assume the reader is an electrical engineer. He or she knows what ohms are, what farads are, what a capacitor is, and what an oscilloscope is. But you shouldn't assume that he or she knows anything about the measurement that you're doing. "
The Abstract's Function
"An important part of skillful reading, particularly when reading technical material, is sorting out the chaff from the wheat--finding what's important to spend your time reading. When they read a technical paper, most people won't go to a journal, find a paper and sit down and read it. Instead, they'll look at the title and decide if the article sounds interesting or not. If it looks interesting, they'll go to the next step. Some people at that point will read the abstract next, while others might glance at the figures and then look at the abstract. The point is that the abstract becomes a crucial decision maker about whether or not to read the full article. If the abstract looks interesting, then readers would go to the next step of skimming the paper. If that looks good, then they'd read the whole paper. Reading the whole paper takes valuable time. The abstract is one of the steps to devoting a lot of time to the paper. A key thing to remember is that you're not trying to trap people into reading the paper--there's nothing to be gained by that. "
How Readers Use Introductions
"When I read a report and after I've gone through the abstract and decided that the report looks like something I'd want to read, I'll probably look at the results section. If the results are interesting, then I'll come back and I'll start reading the introduction. As I read the introduction, I'll be looking for information about why the results of the experiment are important."
The Experiment Section's Goal
"The most important goal of this section is to explain clearly and precisely what was done to obtain the results. You also need to tell your readers the precise procedures that you followed to obtain those results. In a way, it's like telling the ingredients for a cake without revealing the steps necessary to combine and bake them."
Writing an Effective Results Section
"Good results sections are to the point and really talk about the results. They don't go off on a side track discussing the experimental stuff again, and that's the way it should be. You shouldn't be repeating information over and over - except to the extent of reminding the reader, or helping the reader follow what you're doing. Then repetition is okay. A reader should not have to fill in the blanks. "
Discussion & Conclusions: Organizational Concerns
"Sometimes the discussion and conclusion sections are two separate sections - you'll have a discussion section and a conclusion section. I personally like them together, because the conclusions section can sometimes become a little artificial and doesn't really add anything. So, I like to lump them together and just have one final section. "
John Mahan, Electrical Engineering
Project Reports Versus Lab Reports
"Project reports and lab reports are like recipes. You need to include certain ingredients to make them succeed. More responsibility is placed on students with project reports than with lab reports. After all, in a project report, students are not always told exactly how to proceed. They may be told solve this problem instead of build this device. You might even say that project reports are more like design projects since they sometimes require you to create designs. "
The Value of Lab Work
"I can learn a lot from reading and hearing information, but there's something fascinating about actually doing lab work, about creating a functioning electronic system. It's no longer a diagram in a book, but rather components put together…something I wired correctly and it works! That's basic human interest!"
Kowalski, Dawn. (1994). Electrical Engineering Lab Reports. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=87