This paper is the first in a series of three describing a controlled study "Transfer of scientific abilities". The study was conducted in a large enrollment student introductory physics course taught via Investigative Science Learning Environment. Its goal was to find whether designing their own experiments in labs affects students' approaches to experimental problem solving in new areas of physics and in biology, and their learning of physics concepts. The theoretical framework for the design of the study was based on transfer theories such as "preparation for future learning", "actor-oriented transfer", "transfer of situated learning" and "coordination classes". In this paper we describe the design of the study and present data concerning the performance of experimental and control groups on multiple-choice and open-ended exam questions and on the lab exams that assess student understanding of the physics and the reasoning processes used in the lab experiments. We found that the experimental group outperformed the control on lab-based and traditional exams and the difference increased as the year progressed. The project was supported by NSF grant DRL 0241078.