Chemistry is an ‘enabling science’ as its core concepts are essential for almost every area of science (White, O’Connor, Mousley, Cole and MacGillivray 2003) and it is studied both as a discipline in its own right and as a central component of other degree programs. Across 35 Australian universities, more than 20 000 students are taught chemistry each year (Barrie, Buntine, Jamie and Kable 2001a). Chemistry is also a highly conceptual discipline, requiring an ability to deal with phenomena at both a macroscopic and microscopic level, and to connect with symbolic representations used at each of these levels. Students may experience difficulties with their learning if this symbolic language is taken for granted, and there is a risk that connections between the material world and theoretical constructs may be misunderstood (Marais and Jordaan 2000; Kozma, Chin, Russell and Marx 2000; Bucat 2004). The laboratory environment is a bridge between theory and praxis, it offers unique opportunities to assist students as they attempt to construct an understanding of these connections.