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.

3 thoughts on “One Professor’s Experience Incorporating Inquiry-Based Labs”

Hi Lynn. One of my summer reading projects is catching up on some blogs and education literature. I really enjoyed your post. I’ve been working on the same problem over the last academic year and I’ve also incorporated some of the great ideas from PECOP. It’s hard to find the balance between enough structure to help students master a technique but not so much structure that it limits thinking. It’s also been difficult to modify a high-enrollment lab (~270 students/quarter) without much of a budget. I really like the cold pressor activity and I’ll definitely give it a try during summer session. Thanks for sharing!

HI Lynn, like you I have the BioPac lab system for my Animal Physiology lab course. This year I had them perform the standard BioPac lab as the control experiment then design an experimental trial as the inquiry-based lab. They had to develop their hypothesis, methods and incorporate their results into a lab report. This lab course is writing intensive so I designated these three labs as the lab report labs. Each group designed a different experimental trial. As part of the lab report they also had to state what they would do differently if they performed another trial. This added reflection as well. The three BioPac labs they performed were: Pulmonary Function I & II, EMG I & II, and Aerobic Exercise Physiology. I added questions to their end of the term evaluations and specifically asked them how they liked these inquiry-based labs compared to the computer simulations and wet labs also performed. They really liked designing their own experiments and felt they learned the most physiology from these types of labs.

Hi Lynn- so glad you were able to try one inquiry- based lab and are looking forward to trying it more. Your commitment to student centered learning clearly will make a huge impact on your students and their ability to remember physiology. Well done!

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