Scientific Community Laboratories

Developed by: Rebecca Lippmann Kung, Paul Gresser, and Joe Redish

middle schoolhigh schoolintro collegeinter-mediateupper levelgrad school   other

 Intro College Calculus-based
calc based
 Intro College Algebra-based
alg based
 Intro College Conceptual

Mechanics  Electricity / Magnetism  Waves / Optics

What? Design labs in which students work in groups to design an experiment, carry it out, analyze it, and present their results to other groups. They critique each other's experiments and then evaluate how to improve them. Each lab consists of a simple question, with no instructions for how to answer it.

Why? Scientific community labs can give students the experience of participating in a model of a realistic scientific community. They help students recognize that science is developed through extensive observation and experiment, rather than by testing someone's arbitrary made up hypotheses.

Why not? If students expect the goal of labs to be to prove what they learned in class, they will be frustrated by design labs, which are useless or counterproductive for achieving this goal. These labs won't work well if you can't effectively train teaching assistants to support their approach.

Example materials


Activity outline

  • Each lab consists of a simple question that students must answer experimentally.
  • Students are not given a detailed lab manual with instructions for how to carry out experiment; rather, students must design the experiment themselves.
  • Students are given a detailed time frame for completing each part of the task (planning, carrying out, discussing, revising, writing up, etc.) and are required to stick to it.
  • Each student is given a specific role (journalist, data interpreter, critic, checker) for each experiment. The roles rotate after each experiment.
  • Students work in groups of 4.
  • Each lab period includes a period in which students present their design and results to the class and critique each other.
  • Each group must write up a “weekly log” describing their design, experiment, and results, as well as responses to critiques from the rest of the class. (It is called a weekly log rather than a lab report to emphasize that it is a work in progress rather than a final report of “the answer”.)

Topic outline

Part 1:

Lab 0: Reaction time
Lab 1: Grandfather clock
Lab 2: Let it roll / Endangered creatures
Lab 3: There's no such thing as a free launch
Lab 4: Roller coaster of statistically likely doom
Lab 5: Gravity

Part 2:

Lab 0: How to use Excel to illustrate data
Lab 1: Damped Oscillations
Lab 2:Light Refraction
Lab 3: Double Slit Interference
Lab 4: Ohmic Materials
Lab 5: Magnetic Force

Student skills developed

Designed for:
  • Conceptual understanding
  • Lab skills
  • Designing experiments
  • Metacognition
Can be adapted for:
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Making real-world connections
  • Using multiple representations

Instructor effort required

  • High

Resources required

  • Advanced lab equipment
  • Tables for group work

Developer's website: Scientific Community Laboratories
Intro Article: R. Kung, Teaching the concepts of measurement: An example of a concept-based laboratory course, Am. J. Phys. 73 (8), 771 (2005).

You can download all of the Scientific Community Laboratories for free from the developer's website.

Bronze Validation
This is the third highest level of research validation, corresponding to:
  • at least 1 of the "based on" categories
  • at least 1 of the "demonstrated to improve" categories
  • at least 1 of the "studied using" categories
(Categories shown below)

Research Validation Summary

Based on Research Into:

  • theories of how students learn
  • student ideas about specific topics

Demonstrated to Improve:

  • conceptual understanding
  • problem-solving skills
  • lab skills
  • beliefs and attitudes
  • attendance
  • retention of students
  • success of underrepresented groups
  • performance in subsequent classes

Studied using:

  • cycle of research and redevelopment
  • student interviews
  • classroom observations
  • analysis of written work
  • research at multiple institutions
  • research by multiple groups
  • peer-reviewed publication