What Does “Inquiry” Mean?

The phrase “inquiry-based labs” has been buzzing around my department for a while now. If it’s possible to crown a king of buzzwords in the realm of chemistry laboratories, “inquiry” is probably it.

On the surface, the idea of inquiry-based laboratories seems straightforward. The idea is to design and implement experiments that require students to engage in the process of scientific inquiry—exploring questions using the scientific method and making claims based on empirical evidence. To some degree, inquiry-based experiments have to “take the training wheels off” and throw students into a situation whose outcome is unknown. The catch is that the extent to which students should be left to explore on their own is by no means clear. Some great work has been done to clarify the continuum of inquiry labs.

Dirty little secret: these kinds of experiments make professors uncomfortable too! When a student makes a mistake during a prescriptive (procedural) experiment, it’s often easy to point to what they did and say “you made a mistake in step x.” The egregiousness of the mistake is related to how far the student is from the expected outcome. But when the outcome and procedure become uncertain, how can students or faculty know when a mistake is made? Anyone who has engaged in scientific research knows that this is a constant theme: did I make a mistake, or am I really observing something new? (Personal aside: I found this tension soul crushing during my early years in graduate school.)

Eventually, every professional scientist has to look this issue square in the face and become comfortable—on an emotional level—with the difference between sloppy technique and novel results. Much of that comes with experience learning and practicing science professionally. However, there’s a great argument to be made that the affective side to inquiry—the cosmic comfort one develops with uncertainty—can be developed through inquiry-based experiments in college.

So what keeps many faculty from implementing inquiry-based labs? You rarely see the other side of the coin in the chemical education literature, of course. Some have raised the point that students don’t learn as much from open-ended experiments, which could yield problematic results. On a more fundamental level, what students learn changes drastically when they work through inquiry-based labs. I don’t agree with the claim that students learn less from well designed inquiry-based labs, but I will admit that what they learn changes drastically. The focus shifts from verifying existing knowledge to constructing arguments based on data and observations.

I’m excited to get into the business of running inquiry-based experiments at large scale—I’ve always enjoyed shaking things up!

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