Jeffrey S. Coker
Scientific Method Applied by Non-majors in Introductory Biology Class
Modern science is generally done by small groups of people asking questions, designing and carrying out experiments, analyzing data, and presenting results. Inevitably, the results lead to more questions, which then serve as the basis for another set of experiments. It seems logical that students would be introduced to modern science through a similar process. Nevertheless, students in introductory science classes are rarely asked to complete a complete cycle of the scientific process.
There are a multitude of different approaches for teaching introductory labs, but the most typical in American universities involves 10 to 15 separate lab sessions where students perform small parts of the larger scientific process. In a typical session, students carry out a set of instructions which leads them to some pre-determined finding. Typically, the pre-determined findings are supposed to illustrate a concept or set of concepts which students are supposed to learn. This is the essence of so-called “cookbook labs.”
Over the last two decades, science education has slowly begun shifting in the direction of more inquiry-based approaches, emphasizing the processes of science and critical thinking over “cookbook labs” and memorizing content. Some courses have adopted guided inquiry approaches where students are given questions, hypotheses, and/or other guidance, but are allowed some flexibility within the experimental framework so that results are not pre-determined.
A few introductory courses have gone even further, adopting open inquiry pedagogies in which students can design, implement, analyze, and present their own experiments. The ultimate form of inquiry, independent research, involves an original open inquiry which builds upon existing literature to discover new knowledge.
This study evaluated an open inquiry pedagogy for introductory biology labs where students designed, implemented, analyzed, and presented their own experiments. The labs took place in “Reinventing Life,” a course for non-science majors which investigates how the biology of life is changing in the 21st century.