The Underlying Philosophy Behind The Laboratory

Much is written today in the science education literature about scientific inquiry, inquiry labs and inquiry learning. In science education, inquiry has become the buzz word of the early 21st century. Certainly, inquiry should be of central importance in our classrooms. The concept of inquiry meansdifferent things to different teachers. Consider the following meanings offered for the word inquiry as found at

  • a question; query.
  • the act seeking information by questioning; interrogation.
  • a close examination of a matter in a search for information or truth.
  • a systematic official investigation often of a matter of public interest esp. by a body (as a legislative committee) with power to compel testimony.
  • a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.
  • an investigation, as into an incident.

Whatever inquiry is, it must have something to do with conducting investigations in order to acquire information capable of answering a question. The form which inquiry takes in the pages of The Laboratory centers around the use of laboratory notebooks (as opposed to traditional lab handouts) and the use of labs which are based on a testable question expressed as a clearly worded Purpose statement.

The Use of Lab Notebooks

While the lab ideas at The Laboratory could easily be converted into a conventional handout, the intent was that they would be used with a laboratory notebook. When using a lab notebook, students are left with the task of organizing the structure of how the observations and data are presented and analyzed. They are also left with the responsibility of drawing conclusions and supporting the conclusions by referring to the evidence (i.e., the data). The use of a lab notebook serves to strengthen students' ability to:

  • thoroughly document one's work and to keep clear and understandable records
  • communicate and present data in the form of tables and graphs
  • reason from data in support of a particular conclusion
  • understand the level of certainty with which conclusions can be made
  • develop explanations of nature which are based on evidence

The abilities listed above are abilities which professional scientists must develop to be successful at their work. In this sense, the use of lab notebooks becomes a more authentic means of engaging students in the type of work which scientists engage in.

Labs with a Purpose

Most physics teachers desire to provide inquiry-style lab experiences in which students conduct investigations into a question which can be answered through the collection and analysis of lab data. The ability to follow procedures is not intrinsically bad nor even contrary to the work of scientists. Many scientists have standard operating procedures that they must learn to follow. Yet, the inclusion of procedures on labs tends to distract science students from the question which is being investigated. Whatever inquiry is, it has something to do with pursuing the answer to a testable question. And at the heart of every Purpose statement is a question or an inquiry. And as students pursue the question, they are more likely to become engaged in an inquiry-driven lab.

When a student walks into the lab, the question should be front and center. If laboratory work is about determining the answer to an inquisitive question, then the question should always be the focus. By withdrawing the lab handout with its procedures and already prepared data tables, the Purpose and the question it is based on is more likely to be the focus. By providing students with a well-written purpose and a blank page in a lab notebook, the question becomes front and center. Prior to the lab, students are presented with the question and given a series of brief directives regarding the use of equipment. They are then sent off to the lab to collect data capable of supporting an answer to the proposed question. This question-driven, Purpose-centered approach to conducting a lab investigation is a dramatic departure from the traditional cookbook-style and handout-driven approach. The newly adopted approach bears closer resemblance to the work which scientists do, fosters stronger laboratory investigation skills, and reflects the nature of scientific inquiry. The combining of the revised approach to doing lab with the use of lab notebooks provides more authentic lab experiences and begins to nurture a collection of inquisitive, capable, and confident lab students.

Variety: the Spice of Lab

In creating the nearly 150 lab ideas found at The Laboratory, an effort was made to include a variety of types of lab experiences. Some labs introduce principles, some teach concepts found in the book, some emphasize data analysis skills, some emphasize the ability to design and conduct an experiment, some provide real-life challenges, some emphasize the need for careful control and manipulation of variables, some are intended to simulate or model the behavior of physical systems, and all are intended to engage students in one way or another in the work of scientists. The following types of experiences are most common:

  • exploring an unfamiliar phenomenon in an effort to provide experience and exposure which will later be discussed in class.
  • using computer interface equipment to collect data.
  • pooling class data in an effort to see a clear numerical answer to a lab question.
  • making simple double trial observations to determine the qualitative effect of one variable upon another.
  • conducting a multiple trial, systematic manipulation of variables to determine a quantitative relationship.
  • using video analysis to capture frame-by-frame numerical data.
  • determining the value of some unknown quantity.
  • collecting a large amount of data and numerically analyzing it todetermine a relationship between quantities.
  • collecting a large amount of data, plotting it and analyzing it to determine a mathematical equation

Similarly, in creating the lab ideas at The Laboratory, attention was given to developing labs which target a variety of student outcomes. The outcomes represent the types of knowledge and skills which students should possess upon participating in the lab program. The following outcomes are most commonly targeted:

  • an understanding that scientific ideas emerge from experimentation and the collection and interpretation of data.
  • an understanding of how a scientific question can be tested through experimentation.
  • an understanding that science is mostly a cooperative practice as opposed to a competitive practice.
  • an ability to design an experiment to answer a question or to test a hypothesis.
  • an ability to make measurements, read instruments, collect data, read and interpret graphs.
  • an ability to present observations and data in an organized fashion using tables, graphs and diagrams.
  • an ability to draw conclusions based on evidence.
  • an ability to inspect data and to recognize mathematical patterns.
  • an ability to conduct linear and power regression analyses of data to generate equations which summarize the data.
  • an ability to statistically analyze data and make judgments about its accuracy and precision.
  • an ability to construct explanatory models.
  • an ability of communicate.

The Laboratory as a Flexible Tool for Teachers

The lab ideas at The Laboratory and the inclusion of a Teacher's Guide for each lab have been designed with teachers in mind. The intent was twofold:

  • to provide a variety of labs with a sufficient amount of information (listing of materials, description of procedure, scoring rubrics, tips and suggestions, etc.) so that teachers could adapt the labs to their own classrooms, and
  • to provide a different approach (at least different compared to the traditional lab handout approach) to doing labs, an approach which provides little procedural information to students and centers around the use of a lab notebook.

In making the Teacher's Guides available as downloadable Microsoft Word documents, teachers can modify and alter the labs however they choose. It is recognized that teachers know best when it comes to the activities which take place in their own classroom. Teachers know their own students, their own school climate, their own personality, their own curriculum, their own goals and their own equipment much better than The Physics Classroom. This section of The Physics Classroom website is provided as a service to new teachers who are just getting started with the development of their lab program, to crossover teachers who are overwhelmed and looking for ideas of what to do in lab, to teachers-in-training who are spending valuable time thinking about their future as a professional physics teacher, and to veteran teachers who are looking for a fresh idea to implement in their mature lab program. Whether a teacher chooses to use lab notebooks or not is ultimately inconsequential. It is more important that a teacher be served with an idea, a solution, a challenge and a motivation which ends up impacting their classroom and their students. Just as The Physics Classroom Tutorial and associated pages are intended to be a resource to students in their time of need and test preparation, so The Laboratory (and The Curriculum Corner) is intended to be a resource to teachers in their time of need and lesson preparation.

Those teachers who are interested in discussing the topics presented here in more detail or contributing ideas of their own are encouraged to follow along and participate in the Lab Blab and Other Gab blog.