George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

5 Ways to Add Value to Cookbook Labs

While often dismissed as lacking authentic engagement, formulaic labs can be an excellent starting point for teaching scientific inquiry.

January 3, 2022
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Cookbook labs—highly formulaic science activities that often include an experiment—have acquired a bad reputation in the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) classroom for several reasons: (1) they don’t provide opportunity for significant student autonomy; (2) their highly prescriptive nature doesn’t allow for much teacher and student creativity; and (3) their narrow focus seems to counter the spirit of scientific inquiry.

Some examples of cookbook labs are activities that walk students through a process (e.g., how to test different substances for acidity or alkalinity using a red cabbage indicator) or a product (how to create and then test a water filtration system). Teachers may view cookbook labs as just another worksheet, consisting of an introduction, a space for students to formulate a hypothesis, and a table already structured for student data input, along with several questions that guide them toward an anticipated conclusion. These teachers may be thinking it’s time to ditch cookbook labs.

Cookbook Labs as Catalysts

Teachers, however, can expand on these labs to use them as launching pads for scientific dialogue, inquiry, and data literacy. Here are five ways to get more out of these activities.

1. Identifying sources of errors and addressing experimental design flaws. Students conduct the cookbook lab and, with teacher guidance, hold a scientific discussion about potential sources of errors and how to address them. For example, there are various “recipes” for determining how much energy is contained in food samples using a soda can calorimeter. This experiment calls for a lengthy, step-by-step procedure that’s very formulaic.

After students have collected the data and come up with a conclusion, however, is the perfect time for discussing sources of errors. Students should be able to point out that the system is actually not a closed system, and the setup itself leads to several sources of error if not controlled. Students can also work on engineering a better procedure for minimizing errors by improving the setup. Try using simple labs such as filter paper chromatography to provide students the chance to engage in scientific thinking.

2. Teaching scientific writing, and how to mimic peer-reviewed journal articles in lab report writing. Cookbook labs offer excellent opportunities for students to take the limited and prescriptive nature of recipe labs, with their integrated step-by-step procedures and discussion questions, and expand them into a quasi-scientific paper. Using the labs in this way can show middle and high school students how peer-reviewed journal articles are set up, with a definite structure of sections aligning with different parts of a typical school lab report.

An example of a peer-reviewed journal article is “Associations of Physical Fitness and Academic Performance Among Schoolchildren,” from the Journal of School Health. Give students the opportunity to unpack language use and writing style in the example. Students can also write a group lab report using the cookbook lab, with the required research for the introduction part. 
3. Analyzing data for reliability and validity, and identifying ways to improve both properties. A popular cookbook lab in many classes is measuring the height at which different balls bounce. It seems that the scientific inquiry stops once students have collected all the data, made a conclusion, and submitted the lab report. Here, the teacher can promote data literacy using such simple labs by introducing the concepts of reliability and validity, even among younger children.

Ask questions such as these: How can we ensure that we’re measuring under the same conditions, and why is this important? What steps can we take to guarantee that it won’t matter which team member does the measuring? How can we be sure that we can compare data from one group with another group’s data? During these discussions, students should realize why repetitions via multiple trials are important.

4. Launching into open inquiry. After conducting a cookbook lab, students can engage in open inquiry activity by incorporating other variables into the investigation or engineering a better procedure. One familiar experiment involves determining how the height of a ramp influences the distance a marble rolls.

After performing the highly prescriptive lab, student teams can conduct their own investigation of how other variables may influence distance. This exercise involves students articulating their own questions, creating their own plans for collecting data, discussing and analyzing results, writing up the report, and generating conclusions. They can even discuss the limitations of their own investigation.

5. Visualizing data. Cookbook labs are useful for another data literacy activity. Collect whole-class data, either in a digital format or displayed on the classroom walls. Using this collected data, students creatively think of ways to present the information as a story that a target audience can understand. Offer students the chance to sort and disaggregate data in different ways. This is also a good exercise for teaching how to manipulate data presentation to paint different narratives.

Inquiry occurs in a spectrum from highly structured to open-ended, and there’s a place for cookbook labs on this spectrum. With creativity on the part of the teacher, cookbook labs can promote scientific inquiry through a build-and-broaden approach. It’s time to keep those cookbook labs and use them as a step in the inquiry process.

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