In 2012, three Schools in Science (Biology, Chemistry & Physics) embarked on an audacious project to reinvigorate their first year lab programs. We say audacious somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the simple aim of this project was get first year science students to behave like real scientists in their undergraduate lab classes.
Across the sciences, a typical lab manual resembles a cookbook, dishing up recipes to students who tackle these one at a time during three hour lab classes. The scientific recipe can be a very useful approach for transitioning students from complete novices, to having important lab skills including sample and chemical handling, learning to use sophisticated equipment, and basic OH&S practices.
But when it comes to developing genuine problem-solving and critical thinking skills, recipe or cookbook-type approaches are limiting, and students need to be pushed to the next level. We identified that our first year lab programs rarely prompted students to brainstorm and design their own experiments, collaborate and delegate tasks within groups, refer to the literature, or require them to reflect on their efforts at the end of the experience.
Thus, the IDEA Experiments were conceived, with the acronym based on:
Inquire ⇨ Design ⇨ Explore ⇨ Answer
summarising the general scientific approach to solving unique problems. Specifically, it is the inquiry process, followed by the design phase, which have traditionally been by-passed in first year undergraduate lab classes.
From the outset, our team identified that what we were planning constituted cultural change! Nevermind the students, but our teaching teams themselves would have to be introduced to this new approach to running their lab classes. One of the first things we therefore did was bring lab demonstrators from all three Schools into the one room, and put them through a completely unstructured inquiry and design experience of their own. They were forced to think outside the box, co-operate in teams of four, and accept the idea that there was not necessarily a right way to solve the science-related problem, and that their demonstrator was not going to provide all the answers. For many, this was an uncomfortable, but enlightening process.
The next step was to design some activities that first year students would actually be able to tackle! Some activities were based on pre-existing recipe-style experiments, while others we built from the ground up. Some were one-week pracs, while others were spread across two weeks. The range of topics can been seen in our recent publication here.
Figure 1: Student reflections on the nature of the IDEA Experiments

A snapshot of the student experience was captured through an evaluation completed at the end of each activity. Not unexpectedly, the responses from students were varied, with many thoroughly enjoying the experience, while many others felt very lost with what they identified as a lack of guidance.

Most importantly though, there is a clear picture that students saw the IDEA Experiments as being a lot more like how real science works. It can be hard, unpredictable, a little chaotic, and sometimes pleasantly surprising.
*The IDEA Experiments are the outcome from a collaboration between Dr Gerry Rayner (Biology), Mr Theo Hughes (Physics) and Dr Chris Thompson (Chemistry).
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