- Adam Savage
One unique dimension of teaching in the sciences and clinical disciplines like nursing and other health-related fields is the key role of students in performing experiments and procedures. It is through engaging in these types of learning experiences that students both engage deeply in the content of their coursework, but also practice and develop competency in disciplinary skills.
Key features of the strategy
Not all experiments or procedures are created equal, however. Nilson (2010) argues that, “The laboratory that typically accompanies large lectures also fails to capture the excitement of getting results from an experiment or making a breakthrough on a problem. All too often, labs are treated like second-class, tacked-on learning experiences at best…” For student experiments or procedures to be effective and engaging learning experiences, they must be guided more from an inquiry mindset. Models like POGIL and SCALE-UP provide insight on the importance of developing labs and procedures that go beyond cookbook style exercises. The University of Wisconsin Program for Science Teaching offers the “Un-Cooking the Lab” guide to help faculty move beyond this approach. As the following examples demonstrate, learning activities that feature inquiry-based approaches to experiments and procedures can be valuable and effective learning experiences for students.
Examples and Variations
Brownell, et. al, (2012) share results from a study in which they compared two sections of a biology lab – one that employed the cookbook approach to structuring the lab and one that is structured in a more authentic, research-based approach. In the research-based section of the lab, students “focused on learning scientific research methods in an authentic context, and less emphasis was placed on specific content and breadth of lab techniques. Of particular note, students focused on formulating hypotheses, selecting and analyzing data, and communicating results both orally and in writing.” (p. 37) One additional key feature of the research-based lab is that the inquiry focuses on questions without currently-known results – a feature that increases authenticity for students. The results of the study indicate that students in the research-based section derived a number of benefits, including more positive attitudes towards research, higher confidence in their research abilities, and an increased interest in pursuing additional research.
Howard and Miskowski (2005) report on efforts and results of a redesign of cell biology labs in an inquiry-based approach at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. The overarching goal for this upper level course was to engage students in authentic inquiry so that they could build the skills to design and conduct experimental procedures in a lab setting. The lab modules are designed more like case studies than the traditional cookbook approach. Students work through the modules in groups of 4-5 throughout the semester. The modules evolve from guided inquiry to open inquiry as the semester unfolds. The authors report similar results to those of Brownell, et. al, (2012), providing further evidence of the effectiveness of the approach.
The North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSO) offers a number of online laboratory experiments for students in biology, chemistry and physics courses. Each lab is offered for free use with a Creative Commons license and includes a Word document with detailed instructions for instructors and students. One innovative aspect to this approach is that students use Web-based software and have remote access to the equipment needed to conduct the experiments online. While a range of labs is currently available, they also offer a faculty “sandbox” “where faculty could become acquainted with remote labs by watching demos or by conducting specific experiments themselves. They could collaborate with colleagues in the development of openly-licensed curriculum for new lab exercises as well as in identifying specifications for new experiments. The sandbox would also provide a testing and faculty training site for newly developed experiments.”
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Engaging students in performing experiments and procedures helps students to develop at least two key dimensions of 21st century learning design – knowledge construction and real-world problem solving and innovation. Through active engagement in inquiry-based approaches students construct deep content and competency-based knowledge. When the experiments and procedures are aligned with real-world tasks and applications, they can develop skills in problem solving as well. Through online or technology-assisted activities, students can also leverage the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) for learning.
Experiments and procedures often leverage either physical or virtual technology tools for collecting, analyzing and interacting with data. The NANSO approach described above is a great example of how specialized technology tools can support learning activities. Students can also leverage a virtual, remotely-controlled, robotic telescope or physical digital microscopes that can capture still or video images for further analysis and presentation. Spreadsheet and database software can also help students analyze the data they collect. Finally, presentation software can help students to dynamically present the results of their work.
What strategies do you use to incorporate inquiry in your courses?
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