Monthly Archives: May 2015

One Professor’s Experience Incorporating Inquiry-Based Labs

ball-605592_1280If you read Maureen Knabb’s blog from earlier this year you already know how transformative and useful inquiry labs are for students and yourself. You also know that you should start small when transforming labs in your class from the standard prescribed labs to something inquiry-based. What you might be less certain about is how that might look in your class.

I started out last summer knowing that I wanted to transform at least one of the “cook book” labs in my Human Physiology class into an inquiry-based lab. I’ve taught inquiry-based labs in the past but I’ve never been responsible for taking a standard lab and turning it into something inquiry-based. When I inherited my Human Physiology class it came with a bunch of cook book labs based primarily on Biopac Systems, which allow for acquisition and analysis of physiologically relevant data. Students appreciate using Biopac and enjoy learning how to take ECG’s, lung volumes, etc. I didn’t want to entirely dispense with these labs but I did want to enhance them.

I knew that I wanted to end the semester with a capstone project, one that allowed students to use Biopac to acquire their data. But this time I wanted them to come up with the question, hypothesis and methods.

The first step in my transformation was to look at all the labs for the class, choose those that I disliked for one reason or another, and remove them. I focused on eliminating labs that I didn’t enjoy doing with the students, mostly because they almost never worked correctly and ended up confusing the students about the material. Once I had identified a few labs to eliminate I began to search for something else to do in their place.

I found it really useful to share my ideas for transforming the class with my colleagues. If you’re at a small institution or one that doesn’t encourage this kind of change in the classroom that might mean coming to the LifeSciTRC and getting ideas from the PECOP community. I got a number of great ideas from the summer 2014 APS Institute on Teaching and Learning, where I had the opportunity to talk to Maureen Knabb and begin generating some ideas. I am also lucky that I have supportive colleagues at my home institution and when one of them mentioned that their PhD work had been in stress and the bodies’ response I knew what to start searching about. I came first to the LifeSciTRC to search for lab resources on stress, I quickly found this article about using the cold pressor test by Dee U. Silverthorn and Joel Michael. I modified it slightly asking students to develop hypotheses about how they might be able to negate cold pressor stress. It required them to both determine how they wanted to test for the effects of stress on the body and another test to see if they could lessen the effects of that stress. It was the perfect fit for my class, easy to do using Biopac, it left plentiful room for students to ask their own questions, and was a topic of interest to college students (what college student doesn’t occasionally feel stressed out?).

After finding the capstone lab experience I decided to incorporate one additional, shorter inquiry-based lab earlier in the semester. I knew that an additional experience with inquiry-based labs would be beneficial to the students and when I found a paper by John R. Taylor1 highlighting an inquiry-based lab on osmosis I knew which lab to modify.

Anecdotally the students really enjoyed the inquiry-based labs. They became engaged with those labs and had a lot of fun with them. They were initially a little unsettled at being asked to design their own experiments but quickly rose to the challenge.

This first small success at implementing some inquiry-based labs into my Physiology class has inspired me to incorporate more. I’m looking at adding another inquiry-based lab next semester and from there, who knows how many I will modify! It all started because I switched one lab. I encourage everyone to try taking one lab and make it more inquiry-based. Do you already use regular inquiry-based labs in your classes? If not, do you have a particular class in which you would like to include an inquiry-based lab? Did you recently make a switch to inquiry-based labs? If so, how has it gone for you?


1. Taylor, J. R. A Simple Inquiry-Based Lab for Teaching Osmosis. The American Biology Teacher, 76(4):265-269. 2014.




Lynn Diener is an Associate Professor at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, WI. She has taught a variety of courses but regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Anatomy and Ecology. Lynn received her PhD in Molecular and Environmental Toxicology from the University of Wisconsin Madison. Lynn is a PECOP fellow and a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow. She enjoys incorporating student-centered learning into her classes and takes every opportunity she can to learn more about doing so effectively.

Observing PECOP’s Impact at the 2015 Experimental Biology (EB) Meeting

The purpose of the physiology education community of practice (PECOP) is to build community support and collaborations and to create emergent opportunities that might not exist in our isolated silos of departments and institutions.  PECOP fellows and participants had a significant presence in the APS teaching section poster session at EB in Boston, with more than a dozen posters.  Several were authored by educators who participated in the APS-ITL (institute on teaching and learning) in Maine in June 2014. The APS teaching section reflects a growing community of physiology educators who are engaged in developing and applying student-centered learning practices, in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and in physiology education research. Here, we highlight three posters that illustrate the impact of the APS-ITL and PECOP:

First, the APS-ITL catalyzed the formation of a new inter-institutional group and the comparative animal physiology core concept project (see Cliff et al. poster # 541.32 and Patricia Halpin’s PECOP blog post).  This group has formulated specific core concepts that are essential for student learning in animal physiology.

Second, attending the APS-ITL encouraged a PECOP fellow to attend and present at EB for the first time (poster # 687.23).  Trudy Witt followed up on her fascinating historical poster at the APS-ITL and came to her first EB meeting to share more information about the history of teaching using simulators.  From her poster, we were reminded that teaching with simulations is not new.  A French midwife in the 1700s invented an obstetric simulator and used it to teach midwifery to thousands of illiterate women.

Finally, another poster presented a different type of simulation.  Kerry Hull’s poster (#541.2) built on her poster at the APS-ITL. It described role-playing simulations that help students master complex physiological processes (negative feedback and ventilation). Kerry assessed student comments and exam performance and concluded that role-playing simulations in larger classes can benefit both participants and observers. She also argues that simulations are more effective when they are used in multiple classes so that students have a chance to revisit them, rather than being exposed only once.

These posters illustrate a few of the effects of this community of practice that were manifest at EB 2015:

  • bringing together new collaborative groups to create new tools and research projects;
  • broadening participation in the APS teaching section at EB by encouraging first-timers to present scholarly work;
  • enabling support and constructive feedback for physiology education research; and
  • providing opportunities for PECOP participants to meet and reconnect in person and continue conversations that began in Maine last year.

Did you reconnect with PECOP participants or fellows at the APS teaching poster sessions, symposia, dinner, or box lunch?  Please share your EB experiences in the comments.  We would also like others to share additional information about other posters you saw or presented in the comments to this blog.




Jenny L. McFarland is tenured faculty and former department chair in the Biology Department at the Edmonds Community College (EdCC) where she teaches human anatomy & physiology and introductory biology courses and conducts biology education research on student learning or core concepts in physiology. She received the EdCC Echelbarger-Sherman Exceptional Faculty Award in 2013. She is a PULSE (Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education) Leadership Fellow (selected 2012). As a PULSE fellow and a steering committee member on several NSF-funded projects, she advocates for excellence in undergraduate physiology, biology and STEM education at 2-year and 4-year institutions. She has served as a facilitator for the NW PULSE workshops to transform life science departments in the Pacific Northwest. Jenny earned her B.S. in Aeronautics & Astronautics Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her Ph.D. in Physiology & Biophysics and Physiological Psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle.




Robin McFarland teaches anatomy and physiology at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California. She earned her Ph.D. in physical (biological) anthropology from the University of Washington. Robin studies ape anatomy with her colleagues from University of California, Santa Cruz. She coauthored Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology with Ken Saladin.