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What are inquiry-based labs, and how are they different from more traditional lab experiences?

Traditionally, the context for introductory biology labs is the exploration of a biological concept (metabolism, cell division, etc.), which from the student’s perspective can be quite abstract.  In inquiry-based labs, it is instead observations and questions, which are sometimes centered on issues that are relevant to students’ personal or civic lives, that initiate and set the context for lab exploration.  This is because research in science education has revealed that students are more engaged in their own learning when there is an initial context centered on student interests and experiences.  In inquiry-based labs, students also practice making critical decisions about hypotheses, predictions, and the design and execution of the experiment. This “student-centered” focusrather than solely a “concept-centered” focusfosters deeper student interest and investment in the outcomes, and helps students to more fully appreciate the creative aspects of science and understand how design decisions can influence the validity of their findings.

The Discovering Biological Science labs, developed by Dr. John Peters and Dr. Brian Scholtens, weave together a series of labs that explore important introductory biology concepts while providing students with experiences that lead them to understand and appreciate the collaborative, creative, and dynamic nature of science. There are two different introductory biology lab manuals that can be adopted as is, or instructors can select individual labs for building a customized lab solution. The series of inquiry-based biology labs are suitable for both major and non-major courses and are available for preview and adoption through Hayden-McNeil of Macmillan Learning.   


Here are the two manuals including the list of specific inquiry-based lab experiments available:

Discovering Biological Science 1 Lab Manual Experiments


  1. Termite Trails: Exploring Scientific InquiryThis lab sets the tone for the student-directed and inquiry-based nature of the lab experience.  Students observe termite behaviors, pose hypotheses explaining an observation, and design an experiment to test their hypotheses.   The lab reveals the students' conceptions of scientific exploration and provides explicit feedback and opportunities to refine their conceptions.
  2. What’s Alive?This case-based, “practicing-inquiry” lab challenges students’ conceptions of what it means to be alive.  Students then design and conduct an experiment to test for signs of metabolism in something that students are unsure as to whether or not it is alive.
  3. Exploring Osmosis and DiffusionThis lab begins by exposing students to people who died from hyponatremia (excessive water consumption) and has students testing hypotheses about water and solute movement across simulated cell membranes (dialysis tubing) to understand and devise proper treatments for a person experiencing hyponatremia.
  4. Exploring Plant MetabolismStudents go outside to explore the interrelations between photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the leaves of plants by exploring the uptake and release of CO2.
  5. Exploring Metabolic Diversity in Plants: Independent Team ProjectsThis multi-week lab has students proposing, designing, conducting, writing, and presenting a scientific research project related to factors they hypothesize may be influencing plant metabolism.
  6. Exploring the Genetics of Eye Color in Fruit Flies (Drosophila melanogaster)This multi-week, guided inquiry has students establishing fly cultures, conducting crosses, and extracting eye pigments to understand the genetics and molecular biology of how eye color is determined in fruit flies.
  7. Lost in Timbuktu: A Case Study-Based InquiryThis case‐based inquiry has students using genetic concepts and simulated DNA profiling to resolve a dispute among three couples whose children were potentially placed with the wrong family after birth.
  8. Discovering the Genetics and Molecular Biology of Sickle Cell AnemiaIn this case-based inquiry students are confronted with an African couple who is trying to decide whether or not to have another child after the father’s first child inherited sickle cell anemia.  Students explore the genetics and molecular biology of sickle cell anemia using simulated protein electrophoresis and its relationship to the evolution of resistance to malaria to help this couple make a decision.


Discovering Biological Science 2 Lab Manual Experiments


  1. Darwinian SnailsThis more inquiry-based adaptation of the popular SimBio® Darwinian Snails computer simulation lab is designed to challenge, dispel, and reform students’ common misconceptions about how natural selection operates.
  2. Exploring the Evolutionary Genetics of Sickle Cell AnemiaThis more inquiry-based adaptation of the SimBio® Sickle Cell Anemia lab contextualizes abstract evolutionary genetics concepts to a classic case of how malaria influences the prevalence of sickle cell anemia in humans.  
  3. Adaptations: Thermoregulation in ButterfliesThis lab has students constructing models of a species of butterfly to test alternative hypotheses regarding thermoregulatory adaptations.  
  4. Exploring Water and Nutrient Transport in PlantsStudents test their own hypothesis about how environmental factors might affect transpiration rate in stem and leaf cuttings.
  5. Exploring Animal Circulation 1In this lab, students initially make careful observations of mammalian heart structure.  Student then pose hypotheses about how the heart pumps blood, which they then test by measuring the heart’s electrical activity (EKG), sounds, and blood pressure during the heart cycle.  
  6. Exploring Animal Circulation 2This second part of the Animal Circulation lab has students using computer-based dissections to explore circulation in several vertebrate groups.
  7. Exploring a Scientific Journal ArticleThis lab helps students develop the skills necessary to interpret and evaluate a scientific paper, which will, in turn, guide them in generating their own relevant biological questions.
  8. Independent Team Projects LabsThis lab has teams honing their scientific process skills by conceiving of, developing, and executing an investigation of their own design.  Compared to the other independent projects lab we've developed, this lab affords students more flexibility in terms of the topic they are interested in exploring as students can explore questions related to prior lab explorations.
  9. Exploring Human Overpopulation and Environmental SustainabilityThis lab begins with a case study in which the issue of human overpopulation of the planet is presented as a myth.  After initially reflecting on their views, students calculate their current and future ecological footprint and discuss its implications for sustainability.
  10. Exploring the Salt Marsh EcosystemThis field-based lab takes students out into a salt marsh ecosystem to explore the biological diversity and physical factors that make up the marsh ecosystem, and to discover the essential ecosystem services of estuaries.
  11. SimPredator-Prey: Exploring the Ecology of Invasive SpeciesThis case studybased lab begins at a public hearing in which several proposals are being put forth by various stakeholders to control the spread of this invasive species of fish. The case then leads students to explore the effect of an invasive species and the implications of using biocontrol agents through a fun, hands‐on simulation.


About the Authors:


John Peters (MS – College of Charleston - Marine Biology; Ph.D. – University of Northern Colorado – Biological Education) and Brian Scholtens (MS/Ph.D. – University of Michigan - Entomology) currently teach in the Department of Biology at the College of Charleston.  There they coordinate the introductory biology labs and teach undergraduate and graduate courses in biology.  The implementation of the Discovering Biological Science curriculum at the College of Charleston was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes (HHMI).

To learn more about these inquiry-based biology labs, please click on the “contact us” link and complete the form.  A Hayden-McNeil representative will be in touch to discuss your unique program needs.

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