Carolina Biological OSE - November 2023


Forums / Chemistry / Inquiry Labs in the Chemistry Classroom


Inquiry Labs in the Chemistry Classroom

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Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64230 Points

I am sick of using cookbook labs in my chemistry class and am wanting to have my students conduct more inquiry labs.  However, my principal thinks that this might be a recipe for disaster.  What do other chemistry teachers do to incorporate more inquiry into their chemistry labs, while keeping their students safe? 

Gabe Kraljevic Gabe Kraljevic 4564 Points

Hello Ruth,

Is your principal a former science teacher?  If not, then tell them to sit back and watch! If they are - then tell them to sit back and watch!

I spent many years doing cookbook labs and being frustrated that students had no clue what they were supposed to be learning, did not understand their data and were constantly worried if they got the 'right' answers!  This was particularly noticeable if the labs had pre-made tables to fill in, a couple of calculations and a few questions at the end. 

One of the simplest ways to convert a cookbook lab into at least an introduction to inquiry is to cut off your pre-lab handout after the Materials section!  So, there's an introduction, a purpose and a list of materials they can use but the students have to figure out the rest.  How they will perform the experiment, what they will measure, what variables they will use and which will need to be kept constant, how they will record and present the data is all up to them!  With the scaffold at the beginning and a list of materials there is less 'mayhem' but the students are still thinking, analyzing, predicting, etc. Instead of fill-in-the-blank tables and questions they will need to make sense of their data, explain their results and determine the best way to communicate that.

Later on you may take the next step by having the students investigate questions they, themselves, have about a phenomenon or topic you're teaching and creating their own labs from the start. Now you're at a full-blown inquiry.  

Hope this helps!

- Gabe


Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5745 Points

These Landmark Lesson Plans are not labs, but are inquiry-based activities that could easily be used to frame a laboratory investigation. 

Some inquiry lab ideas are detailed here

I reworked my college level labs to be inquiry by framing each one with a 'Question of the Day'. I prepared a table in a 2016 publication that explained what is provided by the Teacher and what is prepared by the Student in the levels of inquiry. I structured the lab course to begin with structured inquiry and the moved to end the term with exploration inquiry. 

Mary Bigelow Mary Bigelow 10275 Points

Gabe has some great suggestions!

I really like an article from the Science Scope journal Folding Inquiry Into Cookbook Lab Activities. It has ideas for revising investigations rather than trying to find/create brand new ones (although not all lessons are inquiry-able, and the article discusses that, too).

Mary B


Christine Herald Chris Herald 1825 Points


I tried a few 'inquiry' labs last year as I designed a new lower level chemistry class. I started the year with empty closets/cabinets so looked at household chemicals at first. One of the first labs students designed involved polyacrylamide soil spikes and different liquids. Then searching at I modfied the silly putty activity that allowed students to test different ratio of ingredients and test how the putty stretched. Using allowed students to investigate online changing variable and observing changes in the models (no chemicals wasted!). Analyzing mixtures, cartesian divers (density/pressure), and a pH shampoo lab were also self directed labs (check your chemical supplier for kits). Students used temperature probes to design a good hand warmer from 3 different chemicals and determine how pH affected pop rocks ability to bubble. AACT is a great resource as is #NGSS on Twitter. I did buy the NSTA book on Argumentation in Chemistry since i wanted to introduce modeling also. Check out


Good luck & keep us posted as you try some new labs!

Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5745 Points

Great suggestions! 

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64230 Points

Hi Chris, 

Thank you for the suggestions.  Tell me more about the lab involving polyacrylamide soil spikes and different liquids.  

Have a good day, 


Christine Herald Chris Herald 1825 Points


Sent you a private message!

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64230 Points

Hi Gabe, 

I really like your suggestions and feel that my principal would receive this format very well.  Because students are given a set list of materials that they must follow, they would not waste supplies or combine chemicals that should not necessarily be combined. 

Thank you so much for your help,



Daisy Johnson Daisy Johnson 1960 Points

Hello! I am a student at the University of Northern Iowa, and we are learning the importnace that play has for students. We have learned that they learn so much deeper when they are able to explore and expereint on their own without being told what they are supposed to be learning. I have seen this done in one of my feild experiences. It was in a 5th grade classroom, and a small group of students were given a balloon, vinegar, baking soda, and a gradulated cylindar. The students were given limits on measurements, and of course given safety rules, but other than that it was up to them to expereiment what they could do with the materials! It was amazing to see them problem solve and explore without the pressure of having to be 'correct'. I think that this is something you should consider trying in your classroom to get away from the 'cookbook' lessons!

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