What about Albert Einstein? Using Biographies to Promote Students' Scientific Thinking

By Fingon, Joan C.; Fingon, Shallon D. | Science Scope, March 2009 | Go to article overview

What about Albert Einstein? Using Biographies to Promote Students' Scientific Thinking


Fingon, Joan C., Fingon, Shallon D., Science Scope


Who hasn't heard of Einstein? Science educators everywhere are familiar with Einstein's genius and general theory of relativity. Students easily recognize Einstein's image by his white flyaway hair and bushy mustache. It is well known that Einstein was a brilliant physicist and an abstract thinker who often used his creativity and imagination in his scientific thought process (Parker 2003). Clearly, if students had opportunities to study Einstein and other scientists, it might increase their interest in science and encourage them to think more like scientists. To that end, based on our shared interest and passion for Einstein and combined teaching experience, we thought it might be helpful to describe how Einstein can be highlighted in a biography unit for the middle grades.

Einstein as a role model

It is well documented that Einstein (1879-1955) is considered one of the most influential figures in science, if not the most famous scientist of the 20th century (Severance 1999). As a physicist, he transformed our ideas of time, energy, space, and the way the universe works. Yet what is not known by most students is that Einstein was considered a theoretical scientist, one who preferred to use his math skills and his mind to explain and prove what he observed in the world (Parker 2000). He believed that he had no special talents and that studying facts alone was not enough and one should never stop questioning. Most students are surprised to learn that Einstein was a humanitarian who shared his thoughts and ideas about justice, freedom, and world peace. While the world viewed him as a genius, he believed that

* imagination is more important than knowledge,

* knowledge is limited,

* imagination encircles the world, and

* curiosity is more important than intelligence (Calaprice 2005).

Because Einstein is so popular, and there are so many resources about him readily available, he is a good example to use as an introduction to a scientist biography unit.

Biography logistics

The overall purpose of the unit is to increase students' knowledge about scientists and promote students' own scientific thinking. The idea is to help students discover more than straightforward facts about a scientist and learn about the individual's character and ways of thinking about science. Another focus of the unit is to help students make personal connections between their experiences and experiences of the scientist they choose to study. The unit can also be used to connect students' learning to specific scientists based on certain topics or concepts being taught in lessons. The length of a biography unit depends on the teacher's instructional time, number of students in the class, and resources available.

Before beginning my scientist biography unit, I ask students to sketch a picture and describe a scientist. Most students draw a man with glasses in a white lab coat and working in a laboratory (see "Sculpt-a-Scientist, in Jackson 2008, Teacher Resources). They often describe a scientist as experimenting with test tubes and bubbling chemicals or liquids. Prior to students reading biographies about real scientists (past or present), it helps them learn how to question and reflect on their own perceptions and beliefs about scientists. It also helps students make more personal connections to science and increase their interest, creativity, and quest for knowledge.

After students are placed in small groups to share drawings and compare their ideas about what they know about scientists in general, they are introduced to unusual facts, quotations, and photographs about Einstein. The information about Einstein is used as an example to build off students' prior knowledge and perceptions about him and pique their interest in learning about other scientists. Two examples of Einstein resources to introduce the lesson are Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and From Children by Calaprice (2002) and Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein by Delano (2005). …

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