Academic journal article Science Scope

Using Historical Investigations in the Classroom: History of Science as a Tool for Teaching

Academic journal article Science Scope

Using Historical Investigations in the Classroom: History of Science as a Tool for Teaching

Article excerpt

Using "hands-on" instruction in the science classroom has obvious value for both teachers and students. In fact, many of the ideas in science education journals focus on this method. However, just because a type of instruction does not allow students to physically interact with objects does not mean it is not worthwhile. An article in Science Scope discussed the value of demonstrations for the inquiry-based classroom (Deese, Ramsey, and Cox 2007); many other articles describe the importance of literature. One method I have found to be productive and engaging for students uses examples of historical science investigations, a method similar to the "Storyline Approach" (Isabelle 2007), and sometimes referred to as "historical vignettes" (Wandersee 1990) or "historical narratives" (Metz 2004). The strategy involves a verbal or visual description of an investigation scientists did in the past. Below I first describe the method, and then provide a sample historical example to illustrate how it works.

Using the method Context

The method begins with the teacher describing the context and setup of a historical investigation; this could include the year the investigation took place, other events occurring at the time, other scientific discoveries of the time, and the background of the scientist who conducted the investigation. The teacher also describes, using pictures, drawings, or artifacts, how the investigation or experiment was set up, including a description of variables (if there were any), what data were collected, and the length of time the investigation would last. After the context of the investigation is explained, the teacher invites students to ask questions to clarify things such as equipment used, time involved, what measurements were being taken, and so on. Depending on students' level of process skills, there could be numerous questions asked, or there could be none. I have found it helpful to ask students to imagine they were the investigator--what else would they need to know to complete the investigation? If students are somewhat proficient with their scienceprocess skills, the teacher could give less information (i.e., explain the question, but little else). In the van Helmont example, described below, this could be as simple as asking students to design an experiment to determine what portion of a tree's mass is obtained from the soil. If students need more practice with designing experiments, the teacher might describe the steps and ask students to determine why the steps are in that order. Students could also analyze the experimental design, identify variables and controls, and speculate on possible modifications to the design.

This typically is an opportune time to formatively assess students' process skills. If students appear to be having difficulty with a particular skill, the teacher can modify instruction to focus more explicitly on that skill. For example, if students are having trouble coming up with a testable hypothesis, the teacher could describe the van Helmont investigation and ask students to create a hypothesis from van Helmont's work. Once students understand what the experimenter did and why, the teacher can proceed to the next part. It is important, however, that the teacher not explain what will happen or lead students to the "answer" at this point. The purpose of this initial stage is only to set the background and describe the experiment. It is analogous to describing a lab to students without telling them the outcome of the lab.


Once the context of the investigation has been described, students explain either in writing or verbally what they think might happen in the investigation. I have found the most success by having students draw and describe the setup on paper and explain their predictions in writing. I then allow students to verbalize their predictions in small groups, followed by a wholeclass discussion. If a particular student seems to already know the outcome of the experiment, I treat that student's prediction the same as any other. …

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