Brookfield High School
However, every year after having students carefully follow the "cookbook" approach to this lab--"arrange the test tubes in a rack, number from 1 to 10, pour 2 ml of hydrogen peroxide....etc.", I found that when it came time to draw some conclusions, they had no idea what the different degrees of activity meant, what substances contained the enzyme, or what substance was the substrate. They loved watching the "fizzing" and dutifully recorded observations and measurements of the reactions, but the conceptual understandings about enzymes were missing. This was true in both general and honors biology classes, and other teachers who taught the same course had the same experience.
This is one example of a lab activity which students approach as simply a "recipe" where the results are already known, and they have to follow directions, all in the same way, to get to the endpoint: the correct answer. But this does not require them to construct meaning, to think logically, to use the science they have learned to solve problems. In following a recipe they are not really "doing" science or using the scientific method. This has bothered me about our traditional lab activities. So last year I modified this lab and other activities so that students have more of an opportunity to construct their own knowledge; I am in the process of changing other lab activities to use an inquiry approach.
During class discussion, students are asked to examine the formula and decide how this compound can be changed to become non toxic. They usually suggest that H2O2 can be changed to water and oxygen, or to hydrogen and oxygen. After some inquiry, they realize that if hydrogen peroxide is to be chemically changed, an enzyme must be involved. That is the background information they have available as they proceed to the lab to answer some questions about the enzyme.
I suggest that some of these item should not be openly displayed. For example, the mortar and pestle. Instead, let students decide on a hypothesis and test by brainstorming and using their own previous knowledge and creativity. You'll be amazed when they think of valid experiments you've never thought of!
Have students check their proposed experiment with you before proceeding. Provide them with materials they request as long as they are available and as long as there are no safety problems.
The group discussions show me that they are doing science, thinking about controlled experiments, suggesting ways of testing variables, and arguing with one another about which method may be best. They satisfy arguments about procedure not by asking me if one or the other is right, but by trying each idea in an actual experiment. They are eager to test their hypotheses because these are their hypotheses and their experiments, not the textbook's recipe. And they find out that all answers are correct, because everything they do leads to some information about enzyme activity.
The group responsible for answering the question "How can the enzyme activity be sped up?" struggled with that question for 2 days. They came up with 2 ideas: increase the temperature (their logic was that this would add energy), and chop up the liver or the potato with a scalpel (they explained that this would increase the surface area for reactions). They tried both ideas, got some increased activity with warm temperatures, and much more activity with the chopped liver. I encouraged them to look around the room and see if they could find something that would further "chop up" the liver. They tried the mortar and pestle, and found even greater activity. After some thinking, they realized that since enzymes are contained in cells, grinding must open up the cells and the enzymes are then free to react with the substrate.
My students use their lab notebooks and journals to record their thinking while doing lab activities and later to respond to questions about what they have learned. This is how I evaluate their learning. Compared to the years when my students followed the traditional step by step lab procedure, I have found that students using the inquiry approach to discovery not only understand more about enzymes after doing this activity but they also use more skills and tap into more of their scientific knowledge than they would if they just followed directions without thinking.
This lab was successful for these reasons and also because it has made my students more comfortable in the lab, less anxious about getting the wrong answer, and paved the way for further creative challenges in scientific problem solving. I now look at all textbook labs as an opportunity to use the inquiry approach. Except for skill building labs, like using the microscope, just about any lab you can find in a manual or textbook can be modified to make it more open-ended. Try It!