Academic journal article Science Scope

Using Biographical Letters to Draw on the Nature of Science

Academic journal article Science Scope

Using Biographical Letters to Draw on the Nature of Science

Article excerpt


Science is a human activity with a rich, colorful, and controversial history.

Teaching science from a historical perspective can influence the way students perceive, understand, and apply scientific concepts and processes.

Perhaps more importantly, it can unlock the world of scientists, revealing their brilliance, their flaws, their perseverance, and their struggles with the consequences of their discoveries. By making them human, we make them more accessible to students. Accessibility is important if students are to become interested in and motivated about science, begin to see the social impacts of science, have opportunities to develop scientific literacies, and experience authentic science. This article describes one strategy that is successfully being used in middle school classrooms to portray science as a human endeavor.

Biographical letters

Biographical letters is a strategy that gives students the opportunity to view scientists as real people who, like them, belong to real communities and pursue real interests. Using biographical letters allows students to see the scientist as a person and recognize that science is more than the finished products they see in texts. These stories capture an important element that has long been absent in science teaching: "being told where we are now (knowledge of science), without being told how we got there (knowledge about science)" (Wandersee 1992, p. 428). Through biographical letters, students become invested in the course of events presented in the story and become protagonists, re claiming the role and contributions of a scientist.


Developing the biographical letter

With Jardine's (2005) biography of Robert Hooke acting as the main
information source for this activity, the design of the
biographical letter, "The Boy from the Isle of Wight" (see sidebar,
p. XX; the full letter is available with the online version of this
article) was guided by the work of Wandersee (1992) and Monk and
Osborne (1997). Consequently, it has the following features:

* The letter uses the first-person format. Students impersonate the
scientist of their choice.

* Like most letters, this biographical format includes a purpose.
In this case, the writer attempts to tell the reader about the
unfair treatment that Hooke received from Isaac Newton. This
conflict appears to have undermined Hooke's stature in the history
of science.

* The letter highlights human features that the reader can use to
contextualize the central episode of the letter (Newton destroyed
Hooke's pictures hanging on the wall of the Royal Society).

* The letter is framed by the social and historical context and
invites students to take sides.

* The scientist is depicted at different stages of his life
(childhood, adolescence, adulthood). Students may see themselves
represented in the story and therefore be more prone to share their
views about participation in the scientific enterprise.

* The reading of the letter is interrupted, which allows for
student participation at crucial moments of the story. See
notations on the letter, available with

the online version of this article, for appropriate interventions.

* The presentation and discussion of the central episode enhances
the science content being studied.

* The letter ends with students becoming protagonists of the story.
In this case, students gain agency by reviving the name and image
of Robert Hooke through the portrait they produce based on the
physical description offered by Jardine. The use of drawings is an
inviting way to have students engage in the concept being studied.
Other artrelated strategies, such as biographical kits, will also
assist students, especially English language learners, to
communicate their understanding of the topic (Figure 2).

Plan to evaluate students' understanding of the issues and connect
the story to lesson goals about the history and nature of science. … 
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