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Designing for Inquiry-Based Learning In Undergraduate Science And Engineering Lab Courses


Looking to move away from having students work through cookbook-style labs to inquiry-based learning opportunities?

While undergraduate laboratory courses are often used to reinforce concepts and teach students non-inquiry lab skills such as gaining familiarity with lab equipment (Feisel & Rosa, 2005), science and engineering labs can be intentionally designed to help students develop their scientific inquiry skills. This resource highlights inquiry-based lab designs from featured Columbia and Barnard faculty, and provides considerations for designing opportunities for student inquiry in undergraduate science and engineering lab courses. 

The CTL is here to help!

CTL consultants are happy to support Columbia instructors as they design opportunities for student inquiry in science or engineering lab courses. Email CTLfaculty@columbia.edu today to schedule a 1-1 consultation.

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Designing for Inquiry-Based Learning in Undergraduate Science And Engineering Lab Courses. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/designing-for-inquiry-based-learning-science-engineering/

The What and Why of Inquiry-Based Lab Learning

With the diversity of lab courses across science and engineering disciplines come many different ways to promote student inquiry. Bell et al. (2005) state that “[a]t its heart, inquiry is an active learning process in which students answer research questions through data analysis” (p. 1). While Bell et al. focused on science lab courses, their definition of inquiry also applies well to engineering labs courses. This definition of inquiry addresses ABET General Criterion 3, Student Outcome 6, which states that students should be able to “develop and conduct appropriate experimentation, analyze and interpret data, and use engineering judgment to draw conclusions” (ABET, 2021, p. 9).

Highly structured confirmation labs are often compared to strictly following recipes in a cookbook, as students carry out experiments by following direct instructions that lead to expected outcomes. While these confirmation labs can help students acquire basic lab skills like following experimental and safety protocols, they do not provide students with the learning opportunities needed to practice and hone their scientific inquiry skills, such as identifying their own hypotheses or problems to explore, designing their own experiments or prototypes, or generating their own interpretations and conclusions. 

When designing labs that promote scientific inquiry, instructors should carefully determine the appropriate amount of structure to provide students as they progressively develop their inquiry skills. You may find the following rubrics helpful for thinking about the levels and aspects of inquiry that you might want students to focus on in your lab course:

Examples of Inquiry-Based Opportunities in Lab Courses at Columbia and Barnard

As you consider ways to make your own laboratory course more inquiry-based, explore what your colleagues at Columbia and Barnard are doing to engage their students in developing scientific inquiry skills through a scaffolded process that often culminates with authentic inquiry opportunities. 

During the CTL faculty panel discussion “Promoting Student Inquiry in Science and Engineering Lab Courses” held on October 13, 2021, Sarah Hansen (Chemistry), Aaron Kyle (Biomedical Engineering), and Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch (Environmental Science, Barnard) shared how they involved students in asking their own questions, making their own decisions, generating their own interpretations, and pursuing their interests.

Panelists also shared how they adapted their lab courses for remote learning during the pandemic, resulting in additional inquiry-based opportunities that they have carried forward into their in-person lab courses. These include encouraging students to:

  • apply their learning to their local contexts,
  • utilize local resources available to them, and
  • connect the labs to their personal experiences and interests. 

During the Q&A, the panelists shared how they: 

Below you will find the synopsis of each presentation. To learn more, please view each panelist’s brief presentation. 

Sarah JR Hansen, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Chemistry 

Course: General Chemistry Lab

Watch Dr. Hansen’s presentation: General Chemistry Laboratory (recorded on October 13, 2021 | duration ~10 min)

Dr. Hansen described her inquiry-based course in which students collaboratively authored increasing portions of experimental procedures, rubrics, and safety plans throughout the course, until they were prepared to fully author the final experiment. Dr. Hansen encouraged risk-taking and productive struggle by providing many low-stakes opportunities for students to reflect upon and improve their laboratory and group work skills through a process of self-critique.


Aaron M. Kyle, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Engineering Design, Department of Biomedical Engineering

Course: Bioinstrumentation

Watch Dr. Kyle’s presentation: On a Project-Based Engineering Course (recorded on October 13, 2021 | duration ~12 min)

Dr. Kyle described his project-based bioinstrumentation course, in which students learned and implemented the engineering design process by building a pacemaker. Dr. Kyle broke down the process into manageable blocks that students worked on progressively through the course before finally putting all the blocks together to create the pacemaker. Students were charged with extending the functionality of their pacemaker by identifying and designing an additional medically-relevant function of their choice.

Learn more about this course design: Kyle, A. M., Jangraw, D. C., Bouchard, M. B., & Downs, M. E. (2016). Bioinstrumentation: A Project-Based Engineering Course. IEEE Transactions on Education, 59(1), 52–58. https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2015.2445313


Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science 

Course: Intro to Environmental Science

Watch Dr. Maenza-Gmelch’s presentation: Intro to Environmental Science (recorded on October 13, 2021 | duration ~9 min)

Dr. Maenza-Gmelch described her hands-on, inquiry-based course in which students engaged in field experiences, data collection, analysis, and presentation. Note how Dr. Maenza-Gmelch had students practice formulating predictions and hypotheses throughout the semester. Students also pooled the data they collected from their local green spaces, creating rich data sets that all students could use to inform and test their own hypotheses.

Considerations for Designing Opportunities for Student Inquiry

Buck et al. (2008) caution that “traditional laboratories cannot be converted into an inquiry-based activity by simply removing the instructions for completing the activity” (p. 55). However, with careful planning, traditional confirmation labs can be redesigned to meaningfully incorporate opportunities for student inquiry while supporting students through the learning process.

To develop inquiry and analysis skills, students need opportunities to practice generating research questions, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing conclusions. What follows are considerations to make when designing for inquiry, distilled from the literature as well as the examples shared by the faculty panel in the previous section.

Create an Environment that Supports Student Inquiry

Moving away from cookbook-style labs might lead to greater uncertainty and student discomfort. Share real science and engineering examples of inquiry to assure your students that inquiry is an iterative process. Ensure that your course policies and structure support rather than penalize students for taking intellectual risks and struggling productively. Encourage students to ask questions, connect course learning to their interests, try different approaches, frame mistakes as learning opportunities, and iterate. Reassure students that mistakes from taking intellectual risks (as opposed to other types of risks, like safety risks) will not negatively impact their grade.

Clarify Expectations

Students come to science and engineering laboratory courses having varying levels of familiarity with lab work as well as different expectations for what they should learn from such courses. In order for inquiry-based labs to be successful, students need to first understand why inquiry is important for their learning. Explain and discuss the value of engaging in inquiry—such as learning experimental design, troubleshooting, dealing with unanswered questions, and prioritizing the research process over task completion (Goodey & Talgar, 2016)—and how this aligns with the course learning objectives. Map out for students what they will be expected to do in the course, so they can be prepared.

Scaffold the Inquiry Process

Even traditional confirmation labs can be challenging for students still new to working in a lab environment and learning new concepts. Scaffolding the inquiry process ensures students are not overwhelmed or discouraged. In general, modeling the different characteristics of inquiry labs for students before gradually giving them more independence can be helpful. Instructors might begin the semester with more structured labs and gradually increase student involvement in higher levels of inquiry as the semester progresses. In one model, students practice interpreting data and communicating their conclusions early in the semester, then progress to independently analyze data and design experiments later in the semester when they are more familiar with the lab environment, equipment, and analysis protocols. 

The following are a few strategies to support students in developing inquiry skills. To help students…

To acquire basic lab skills

  • Provide multiple opportunities and flexibility for students to practice basic lab skills and demonstrate their learning. Dr. Hansen had students record themselves performing lab techniques that they then peer reviewed and received feedback on for improvement. Zewail-Foote and Shackleford implemented a badge system in which students earned badges whenever they can demonstrate their mastery of specific skill sets. Students were able to attempt these at their own pace and as many times as they needed until a given deadline.

To communicate results and draw conclusions

  • Hold “argumentation sessions” during which groups of students share their initial arguments for constructive critique (Walker et al., 2011).
  • Leverage the uncertainty inherent in scientific inquiry and unexpected results to encourage students to engage in sense-making, adjust models, or justify results (Bolger et al., 2021; Smith et al., 2020).

To analyze results

  • Invite students to practice using different methods of analysis as they learn about them. For example, students may perform two different regressions, one linear and one nonlinear, to analyze their data, allowing them to explore and select the one that provided superior statistical reliability (Silverstein, 2016).
  • Give students practice math problems that can support them with calculations they may need for analyzing results or even for designing experiments (Goodey & Talgar, 2016).

To design experiments and procedures

  • Provide short videos or manuals demonstrating the purpose of different lab equipment and how to safely use them (Goodey & Talgar, 2016). Let students determine the lab equipment they will use for their experiment, including the appropriate values for relevant lab materials, reagents, and equipment settings.
  • Have students share their design proposals and safety protocols for feedback and revision ahead of the lab session (Goodey & Talgar, 2016).

To develop research problems and questions

  • Have students practice generating hypotheses in groups. Ask them to develop models to explain phenomena they observe, and then develop specific hypotheses to test different aspects of their models (Bolger et al., 2021).
  • Set aside lab time for students to design and implement their own experiment to further investigate / extend / build upon the lab investigation (Kyle et al., 2016; Silverstein, 2016).
Formative Feedback

As students develop their inquiry skills throughout a lab course, they benefit from frequent, timely, and actionable feedback. Embed multiple opportunities for students to receive and respond to formative feedback, i.e., feedback for the purpose of learning rather than evaluation. The type of feedback given will depend on the situation. For example, the feedback may be corrective, e.g., “This is the correct procedure for measuring the volume,” or divergent/epistemic, e.g., “Explain your rationale for selecting this equation” (Zemel et al., 2021). For more information on how to provide feedback to students, refer to Feedback for Learning. Consider also highlighting the iterative nature of inquiry by having students modify their approaches in later experiments in the course based on prior feedback and reflection.

Expanding Collaboration

Inquiry-based labs lend themselves well to student collaboration, be it in small groups, sections, or whole course cohorts. Students could collaborate on developing and implementing experiments to address a given research question, develop initial arguments based on gathered data, collectively critique and improve arguments, and peer review individually written lab reports (Walker et al., 2011). Additional opportunities for students to collaborate include co-authoring user instructions for lab equipment, safety plans, and assessment rubrics; co-collecting the same type of data to increase the sample size; and sharing data from different experiments to help inform a model (Bolger et al., 2021). For strategies to support effective collaborative learning, refer to Collaborative Learning.

Partner with Teaching Assistants

Teaching Assistants (TAs) need guidance on how to assist with a lab format they may not be familiar with or have struggled with in the past. For inquiry-based labs, TAs must recognize that one of their primary roles is to “focus, question, and challenge students at all stages of the laboratory period” (Kurdziel et al., 2003, p. 1210). Furthermore, TAs might be overly corrective in their formative feedback and will need guidance in providing divergent feedback that prompt students for further elaboration and justification (Ryker & McConnell, 2014; Zemel et al., 2021). TAs may also need guidance in facilitating discussions that help students increase the number and quality of connections they make “between [the] labs and the real world, or the current lab with prior labs” (Ryker & McConnell, 2014, p. 62). For an example of a TA training program for an inquiry-based course, refer to Wheeler et al. (2017).

Reflecting on Your Lab Course and Your Next Steps

Now is a great time to reflect on ways to increase the level of inquiry in your undergraduate science or engineering lab course. As you review your lab course design, consider the following questions:

  • What should your students be able to do upon completing your laboratory course?
  • What is the appropriate level of inquiry for your course? (Refer to rubric from Buck et al., 2008)
  • How can you continually support students in engaging progressively higher levels of inquiry throughout the semester?

As you plan forward and reflect on your course context, you may find the following helpful:

  • Connect with colleagues teaching inquiry-based labs—learn from their experience and request to observe them facilitating an inquiry-based learning experience.
  • Set up a consultation (CTLfaculty@columbia.edu) with the CTL to review your plan for promoting student inquiry in your undergraduate science and engineering lab course.
  • Request a Teaching Observation to get feedback on your implementation of your new or redesigned inquiry-based lab course.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2009). Inquiry and analysis VALUE rubric. https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/value-initiative/value-rubrics/value-rubrics-inquiry-and-analysis

ABET. (2021). Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, 2022 – 2023. https://www.abet.org/accreditation/accreditation-criteria/criteria-for-accrediting-engineering-programs-2022-2023/

Bell, R. L., Smetana, L., & Binns, I. (2005). Simplifying Inquiry Instruction: Assessing the inquiry level of classroom activities. The Science Teacher, 72(7), 30–33. JSTOR.

Bolger, M. S., Osness, J. B., Gouvea, J. S., & Cooper, A. C. (2021). Supporting Scientific Practice through Model-Based Inquiry: A Students’-Eye View of Grappling with Data, Uncertainty, and Community in a Laboratory Experience. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(4), ar59. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.21-05-0128

Buck, L. B., Bretz, S. L., & Towns, M. H. (2008). Characterizing the Level of Inquiry in the Undergraduate Laboratory. Journal of College Science Teaching, 38(1), 52–58.

Feisel, L. D., & Rosa, A. J. (2005). The Role of the Laboratory in Undergraduate Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 121–130. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00833.x

Goodey, N. M., & Talgar, C. P. (2016). Guided inquiry in a biochemistry laboratory course improves experimental design ability. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 17(4), 1127–1144. https://doi.org/10.1039/C6RP00142D

Kurdziel, J. P., Turner, J. A., Luft, J. A., & Roehrig, G. H. (2003). Graduate Teaching Assistants and Inquiry-Based Instruction: Implications for Graduate Teaching Assistant Training. Journal of Chemical Education, 80(10), 1206. https://doi.org/10.1021/ed080p1206

Kyle, A. M., Jangraw, D. C., Bouchard, M. B., & Downs, M. E. (2016). Bioinstrumentation: A Project-Based Engineering Course. IEEE Transactions on Education, 59(1), 52–58. https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2015.2445313

Ryker, K., & McConnell, D. (2014). Can Graduate Teaching Assistants Teach Inquiry-Based Geology Labs Effectively? Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(1), 56–63. https://doi.org/10.2505/4/jcst14_044_01_56

Silverstein, T. P. (2016). The Alcohol Dehydrogenase Kinetics Laboratory: Enhanced Data Analysis and Student-Designed Mini-Projects. Journal of Chemical Education, 93(5), 963–970. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00610

Smith, E. M., Stein, M. M., Walsh, C., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). Direct Measurement of the Impact of Teaching Experimentation in Physics Labs. Physical Review X, 10(1), 011029. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevX.10.011029

Walker, J. P., Sampson, V., & Zimmerman, C. O. (2011). Argument-Driven Inquiry: An Introduction to a New Instructional Model for Use in Undergraduate Chemistry Labs. Journal of Chemical Education, 88(8), 1048–1056. https://doi.org/10.1021/ed100622h

Wheeler, L. B., Clark, C. P., & Grisham, C. M. (2017). Transforming a Traditional Laboratory to an Inquiry-Based Course: Importance of Training TAs when Redesigning a Curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education, 94(8), 1019–1026. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.6b00831

Zemel, Y., Shwartz, G., & Avargil, S. (2021). Preservice teachers’ enactment of formative assessment using rubrics in the inquiry-based chemistry laboratory. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 22(4), 1074–1092. https://doi.org/10.1039/D1RP00001B

A Learner’s Perspective on Supporting Learning in Columbia Lab Courses

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