A Method for Understanding Their Method: Discovering Scientific Inquiry through Biographies of Famous Scientists

Article excerpt


Mendel and his peas. Goodall and her chimpanzees. Bentley and his snowflakes. Pasteur and his sheep. Not only do these stories intrigue students, but they also demonstrate the trials and tribulations associated with scientific inquiry. Using scientists' biographies piques student interest while providing an added dimension to their understanding of scientific inquiry and the nature of science. In the unit we present here, students learn about important skills used in scientific undertakings while developing positive dispositions necessary for employing them. Moreover, by reading about scientists' struggles and challenges and the impact of their scientific discoveries, students develop an awareness of science as a human endeavor that takes place in a historical and cultural context. As such, the unit advances students' attainment of the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) for levels 5-8:

* Science as Inquiry--Students should develop an understanding of the "abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry" and "understanding about scientific inquiry" (p. 105).

* History and Nature of Science Standards--Students should develop an understanding of "science as a human endeavor," the "nature of science," and the "history of science" (p. 108).

At the same time, important English language arts standards are employed (IRA/NCTE 1996). These include exposure to reading a particular form of literature to obtain information; practice in developing strategies for comprehending, interpreting, evaluating, and appreciating a form of literature; and synthesizing information acquired during this process in order to share with others what they have discovered.

Teaching context

We have each taught this unit, or helped other teachers as they implemented the unit, in many different configurations over the years. It was often taught in a middle-grades science classroom, but at other times it was taught in a self-contained upper-elementary classroom, a resource gifted classroom, and as a collaboration among teachers in different content areas.

Because the unit blends science with reading and other language arts skills, it is perfect for collaboration between a language arts and science teacher. Primary teaching of the inquiry process could be done in the science classroom, and time spent reading the biographies and taking notes could be done in the language arts classroom. Since students would be reading different books, different groupings of students between the science and language arts classrooms should not be a problem. Discussion of the impact of these scientific discoveries can take place in the science classroom. If collaboration is not possible, the science teacher can conduct all lessons in the science classroom using the graphic organizer shown in Figure 1. Total class time for the unit is usually twelve class periods--two to three for scientific inquiry instruction, seven to eight for reading biographies, and two to three for synthesizing information from the biographies. We have described below how we envision this unit being taught, mentioning points where the science and language arts teachers can collaborate.


The first step in developing this unit is to collect as many and varied biographies as possible with a wide range of reading levels represented. To provide information on scientific inquiry, it is important that the biographies focus mostly on the scientist's work. Care should be taken to gather biographies that cover a range of time periods, ethnic/gender groups, and fields of study, with attention paid to the type of research done by each scientist, varying between experimental and observational research. (See Resources for a list of biographies we have used.) Collaborating teachers can work together and pool their resources to obtain more biographies. Books can be obtained not only from the school library, but also from the local library through the interlibrary loan system. …