Introducing elements of inquiry in to undergraduate laboratories

Thomson, Patrick I. T. and McShannon, Lauren and Owens, Samantha; Seery, Michael K. and McDonnell, Claire, eds. (2019) Introducing elements of inquiry in to undergraduate laboratories. In: Teaching Chemistry in Higher Education. Creathach Press, Dublin, pp. 377-390. ISBN 9780992823313

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Inquiry-based laboratories are an emerging and popular way of teaching practical chemistry. They lead students towards independent research by inspiring critical thinking, curiosity, and a conceptual understanding of experimental processes. Inquiry laboratories need a base of knowledge, usually built upon a foundation of expository experiments that teach fundamental skills. As such, the first year of a teaching laboratory may well keep an expository structure, even when later years embrace inquiry learning. In this work, we have shown that elements of inquiry can be introduced lightly and early in the curriculum, using the approach of Szalay and Tóth. In this work, a robust suite of existing experiments has had elements of inquiry introduced with a series of small, standalone modifications. Adaptation of existing experiments allows a tight control on the extent to which a student pushes into unfamiliar territory — particularly important for introductory laboratories, where unexpected results are likely to overwhelm or discourage. The modified experiments confer many of the same benefits as an inquiry laboratory, such as students’ sense of independence and control. The approach works best when supported by prelaboratory exercises, for calculations or procedure-writing steps. The approach builds on prior work introducing inquiry into a school curriculum, and we have shown that it can be used on a large scale in two different undergraduate teaching laboratory environments. In our implementation, we placed a heavy focus on structured support for students, and conducted numerical and written surveys of students and postgraduate demonstrators to measure perceptions of the work.