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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Clemson University

Investigative Learning: A Plan for Laboratory Education


Instructors of introductory biology for non-majors completely revised the laboratory portion of the first semester of the course to focus on the scientific investigative process. A set of student-designed and executed experiments has replaced the familiar "cookbook" exercises for traditional laboratories. The new format aims to give students a better sense of the process of scientific investigation and, through extensive writing and oral presentations, to improve their communication skills. The project directors wished to accomplish these goals without negatively affecting student performance in the lecture course, which the traditional laboratories help to support.

Project Activities

Instructors have completely redesigned the laboratory portion of the course, substituting a computer simulation of commercial aqua-culture and a series of student-designed "wetlab" experiments for traditional laboratory exercises. In support of the new approach, the project directors created extensive new instructional materials:

  1. FISH FARM, a computer simulation challenging students to determine the economically optimum culturing conditions for a hypothetical new fish hybrid.

  2. "Methods modules," consisting of: a videotape that demonstrates standard laboratory techniques; a student manual of step-by-step processes to be followed in designing, carrying out and reporting an experiment; an instructor's guide; and a preparator's guide.

  3. A writer's guide and writing exercises, produced in collaboration with members of the English Department.

Students begin the semester with the computer simulation. Teams of three or four students experimentally determine the best values for each of five culturing variables. The teams then test their conclusions by simulating five years of commercial operation under their predicted optimum conditions. Students using the same unknown fish compete against one another for the most profitable results. Finally, each student writes a FISH FARM report. The emphasis in grading these reports is on correct presentation and interpretation of the results, not on profit.

After completing FISH FARM, students begin the "wetlab" work. The teams formed for FISH FARM view videotapes demonstrating laboratory techniques. In consultation with their instructor, they devise an original investigation using one or more of the techniques and design an experiment. They present an oral research proposal to the class and modify their plans based on feedback from their peers. They then submit a materials list to the prep room, perform the experiment, and present their results orally to the class. Each student submits a written report. In the course of the semester, each team carries out three experiments.

Innovative Features

Laboratory courses in the sciences usually have the stated goal of improving students' ability to think scientifically by doing experiments and interpreting the resulting data. A secondary purpose is review and reinforcement of content covered in course lectures. All students perform the same exercises following highly detailed directions. They know in advance the outcomes they are to achieve, and they are required to explain these "correct" outcomes rather than think about what experiments to perform or how to perform them.

In the investigative laboratories designed and implemented through this project, students devise and report on their own experiments, following procedures much more like those of scientific investigators. In close collaboration with others, they define the question, structure an investigative process, choose appropriate investigative techniques, carry out the experiment, and report results in written and oral form. Grades are based on the quality of the process and of the written report rather than on a series of content-driven quizzes.

Such a laboratory program is rare because it is difficult to implement. The low skill levels of students, unpredictability of lab material requirements, lack of time for thoughtful development of experiments and additional demands on the creativity and resourcefulness of instructors all militate against this strategy.


The project aimed to improve the experimental process knowledge and skills of students and to enhance their writing without sacrificing mastery of subject matter.The design of the evaluation was simplified by the fact that a number of lab section instructors, all of whom were graduate assistants, taught both investigative and traditional labs.

This allowed the separation of students into three groups: those in investigative sections taught by instructors who also taught traditional sections; those in these same instructors' traditional sections; and those taught by instructors who taught only traditional sections. Mean lecture examination scores for the three groups showed no significant difference, demonstrating that students in investigative labs were able to master course content as well as those in the traditional labs, one of whose purposes is to reinforce lecture content.

On the other hand, students in the investigative sections did not do better on test questions about process skills or the nature of science than those in traditional sections. Neither pretest nor post-test results showed any significant difference among the three groups. A test of experimental design ability disclosed investigative superiority in some areas, but no significant difference in overall scores. Nor was there much difference on a test of writing, but the fact that all groups' results were worse on the writing post-test than on the pre-test suggests that students did not take the post-test seriously since they knew it would not be part of their grades.

Student opinion tended to be quite favorable toward the individual parts of the investigative structure but negative toward the whole, largely on the grounds that it was much more demanding and time consuming than the traditional sections. On the other hand, positive response to the wetlab manual, to FISH FARM, to the writing guide and the videotapes as well as to the freedom to devise experiments ranged from 50-75 percent. A majority agreed that they were more confident in their abilities to analyze problems scientifically, design experiments, analyze data and present their conclusions orally and in writing. The majority did not agree that they would have learned more about science in a traditional section.

Although the more negative global response clearly focused on the work demands, perhaps it also resulted from what beginning students believe to be the nature of learning. Because the lab sections had more to do with understanding a process than with memorizing facts, students were not clear about just what it was they had learned.

Laboratory instructors were uniformly enthusiastic about the project from the beginning, and rated it highly with regard to their perceptions of student growth in the skills the course aimed to impart. They were concerned about the investigative students' understanding of the experiments but were equally disappointed in the traditional students' comprehension of the lab exercises. All but one thought the investigative labs required a higher level of effort, but that did not dampen their enthusiasm for the method.

Although the laboratory preparators initially found that the investigative labs made their work more difficult, once they developed new ways of organizing their work they felt quite comfortable. A minority of the faculty remain concerned that the review of lecture course content provided by the traditional labs has been lost.

Project Impact

The project has been well received among faculty and administration at Clemson and seems likely to be fully institutionalized. Because teaching the investigative sections is more demanding, two such sections are considered a full load for teaching assistants, as opposed to three sections of the traditional laboratories. The need to increase the number of TA's is the only barrier to full adoption of the investigative mode.

The project's impacts at Clemson will be increased by some additional funding. In summer of 1992, the investigators received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to extend the investigative format to the second semester introductory laboratory course. (FIPSE funding only influenced the first semester course.) The funding will allow development of new exercises which are sufficiently flexible to make an investigative format worthwhile.

In a broader sense, the most important result of the project is that this approach to laboratory instruction is practicable even in an introductory course for non-majors. Such a course precisely fulfills one major purpose of a general education science course: to give students a sense of the nature of the scientific enterprise.

This project has generated interest on the part of teachers at other institutions. Portions of the course and course materials have been adopted by a local community college. Presentations at professional meetings have been well received, including a detailed presentation at the conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. An NSF funded workshop in the summer of 1990 drew 30 participants who, after five days, agreed unanimously that the work was useful to them and that they planned to implement investigative labs at their own institutions. Many have in fact done so, some using materials from this project.

The project has received two grants from NSF, one for the workshop mentioned above and another for video and computer equipment. A 1992 NSF grant will allow extension of the investigative format to the second semester course.

At the invitation of a commercial publisher, one of the project directors is producing a lab manual. The other project director is publishing FISH FARM with the same company.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

In addition to being practicable, investigative laboratories are more interesting to teach than traditional ones. They cast instructors in the role of research mentors, teaching students the characteristics of a good scientific investigation and then helping them apply those principles to the work they want to do. Investigative laboratories can also offer interesting surprises when a student experiment turns up unexpected results.

Available Information

Project directors will send a general description of their implementation plan, including the lab syllabus and a summary of evaluation results. The laboratory manual and computer program are currently being prepared for commercial publication. Request materials from:

Robert J. Kosinski
Biology Program
330 Long Hall
Clemson University
Clemson, SC 29634-1902

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006