A Model Organism for Inquiry-based Undergraduate Laboratories

Inquiry-Based Learning in Laboratory Courses

The Laboratory Activities (experimental protocols) we have posted on this website (since September 2006) are inquiry-based studies, specifically guided-inquiry laboratories. Inquiry-based learning has been shown to be very effective in engaging students' interests, introducing real-world issues, fostering group and individual work, and making students active learners (reviewed in NRC 2003). This kind of learning is necessarily interdisciplinary and requires students to integrate mathematical skills with their science knowledge. Such integration is among the specific recommendations of the National Research Council Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education (2003). This approach embraces six of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education: (1) encouraging student-faculty contact, (2) encouraging cooperation among students, (3) encouraging active learning, (4) giving prompt feedback, (5) emphasizing time on task, and (6) communicating high expectations (Chickering and Gamson 1991). We explicitly discourage a cookbook approach to experimental studies that make students passive followers of instructions. To learn more about this active learning approach visit links to IBL resources.

D'Avanzo (1996) described three different types of inquiry-based labs: guided, open-ended, and teacher-collaborative. Each differs in the teacher's role and the students' independence. In every experiment we develop, we provide guidelines for you, the instructor, so you may use any of these approaches. In general, the experiments will let students design their own experiments, develop hypotheses, and make testable predictions.

Specifically, our approach has students:

  • describe an experimental design to address the question posed
  • predict the outcomes for each possible interaction
  • identify and list the variables they would manipulate in their experiment
  • identify and list the variables they would keep constant in their experiment
  • list the data they would collect to determine if their predictions were true
  • describe the data analyses necessary to evaluate their predictions
  • describe the graphical or tabular formats appropriate for their data


Statistical and Quantitative Literacy

The use of mathematical and statistical skills in the context of laboratory studies in biology is a very high priority as we attempt to foster the development of quantitative literacy in our undergraduate students. As noted above, the integration of mathematical skills with science concepts is among the best practices recommended for undergraduate biology education (NRC 2003). In each of the Laboratory Activities developed, we describe potential experimental designs, the types of data that could be collected, and make recommendations for appropriate statistical analyses. The use of statistical tests to interpret experimental results is essential for undergraduate laboratories to move beyond the purely descriptive and begin to realistically perform the process of scientific discovery.


Literature Cited

Chickering, A.W. and Z.F. Gamson (eds). 1991. Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 104 pp.

D'Avanzo, C. 1996. Three ways to teach ecology labs by inquiry: guided, open-ended, and teacher-collaborative. Bull. Ecol. Soc. Amer. 77:92-93.

NRC. 2003. BIO 2010. Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. The National Academy Press, Washington, DC. 191 pp. (available at NRC website)