Building inquiry into a Learning Lab

P51™ Glow enzyme lab lights up NGSS and AP Biology Standards.

If you are at all familiar with AP Biology curriculum, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), or just science teaching best practices, you know that inquiry is the way to go. Students learn material best when they struggle to reach answers, and in the process, they develop the skills necessary for doing science. The common digs on inquiry: it takes too long and too often kids fail to reach the learning objective. So, in writing labs for teachers to do with their students: how to deliver an engaging lab that will fit in a standard class period, that allows true student inquiry, and that can be performed by all stripes of teachers without me getting to be in the classroom directing the action?

A good inquiry lab will have a framework that is easily reproducible and leads to clear outcomes, but within which many different variables can easily be manipulated. Altering conditions in an enzyme catalyzed reaction is a classic lab used from introductory through Advanced Placement Biology. But it is also a lab that lends itself incredibly well to inquiry. With a robust reaction that produces a clearly interpretable results, students have the opportunity to choose several variables to manipulate.

Using relative brightness as an indicator, students can observe an enzyme catalyzed reaction using fluorescence.

The key to a good enzyme lab is to have a clearly measurable reaction (dependent variable) and to have an experimental design that allows for altering several reaction conditions (independent variables). Specifically, for a high school level enzyme lab, students should be able to investigate how enzyme and substrate concentration, temperature, pH, and inhibitors affect reaction rate. And all in a way that is clearly observable while producing quantitative data and allowing students to design their own approach.

Enter P51 Glow Labs

The P51 Enzyme Lab (Beta-Gal Glow) has been designed to tackle all of these requirements, specifically aligning with AP biology investigation 13 and incorporating nearly every NGSS Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts. Using a fluorescent indicator with blue light illumination, students can directly observe enzyme catalyzed reactions. In this case, the substrate does not fluoresce, but after reacting with the enzyme β-galactosidase, a fluorescent product is made. As the reaction progresses and more product is made, the fluorescence will get brighter and brighter until the reaction is complete. By comparing the relative brightness of the reaction over time compared to a prepared standard, students can generate quantitative data on reaction rate.

Using a direct visual indicator, students are able to collect, graph, and analyze quantitative enzyme data.

By adhering to an inquiry approach, student groups decide the independent variable they would like to test and develop their experimental approach accordingly. And unlike other enzyme labs out there, students will have the opportunity to test the effect of competitive inhibitors, a hugely important concept that is typically not accessible to high school students in an authentic way. Also, we’ve done the calibration for you, so set up and clean up are both quick and easy – something you definitely cannot say about a catalase lab the puts liver in the blender.

Extra bonus: it glows.

Students may love liver in the blender, but there is just something about fluorescence that is inherently compelling and memorable. And fluorescence is also a powerful biotechnology tool. It is used to see processes that we could never see before. It is used as a label to identify structures. It can be used, as in this case, as a reporter molecule. It can show students that sometimes scientists need to think up creative workarounds to the question of “but how do we measure it?”. We introduced P51 as a tribute to Rosalind Franklin and photo 51. Rosalind Franklin’s research gave us an image of DNA that contributed to solving its structure. Our hope is that P51 allows your students to visualize molecular processes in ways they never could before.

The P51 Molecular Fluorescence Viewer (



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