People Behind the Science: Using Historical Science Stories to Teach about Scientists and How Science Works

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We diligently encourage our students to think and act like scientists. Making observations, discussing ideas with others, designing fair tests, and creating new ways to organize and display data are regular aspects of our students' work. However, we want our students to do more than think like scientists, we want them to think about scientists. Although we consistently ask students to reflect on their own strategies and thinking, we find that having students reflect on stories about real scientists helps students better engage in discussions about how science works and what scientists are like. In addition to meeting National Science Education Standards (NSES) related to the history and nature of science (NOS), reading or hearing about real scientists helps students connect with science emotionally. We have even noticed increased student interest in science concepts during history of science discussions. Toward these efforts, and to tackle misconceptions, we have made use of historical science stories in our classes. Below we describe how we developed and used a historical science story during an upper elementary life science unit.

History and Nature of Science Instruction

Nature of science understanding requires consideration of the processes, assumptions, and values of science. That is, how and why scientists carry out their work. For elementary students, the NSES note:

"Students can learn some things about scientific inquiry and significant people from history, which will provide a foundation for the development of sophisticated ideas related to the history and nature of science that will be developed in later years. Through the use of short stories, films, videos, and other examples, elementary teachers can introduce interesting historical examples of women and men (including minorities and people with disabilities) who have made contributions to science. The stories can highlight how these scientists worked ..." (NRC 1996, p. 141).

Yet, simply using historical stories will not likely lead to increased understanding of how science works. Students' attention must be drawn to specific ideas related to the processes of science exemplified in the stories (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000). Rather than using history alone to teach NOS ideas, we should encourage students to reflect on a continuum of experiences, including puzzle-solving games, students' own investigations, and historical stories (Clough 2006).

Figure 1.

Studying animals science story.

Imagine your favorite animal. Where does the animal
live? What does the animal eat? Some scientists
study how animals live in the wild. This kind of science
is called ecology.

Aristotle and Theophrastus were probably some
of the first ecologists. They lived almost 2,400 years
ago. Theophrastus studied the way animals acted
in nature. He watched how animals behaved with
other animals. He also watched how animals lived
in their habitats.

Two thousand years later, people were still studying
animals. In the 1700s people traveled the world.
They wanted to explore and trade goods with far-off
lands. Scientists often came on these journeys.
Two scientists from Europe noticed something interesting.
They noticed that the plants they found
in other places were not the same plants they saw
in France and Germany.

About that same time, a Dutch scientist studied
how animals and plants work together. He
was curious about how energy moves through
nature. This scientist came up with the idea of
the food chain. The food chain helps us understand
what animals eat. Knowing what different
animals eat can help us understand how energy
moves through nature.

In Sweden, Carl Linnaeus studied living things
another way. Linnaeus saw that many living things
have features in common. He used his observations
to put plants and animals into groups. One hundred
years before, John Ray organized animals into
groups based on their teeth and feet. …