A Discipline-Specific Approach to the History of U.S. Science Education

By Otero, Valerie K.; Meltzer, David E. | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

A Discipline-Specific Approach to the History of U.S. Science Education


Otero, Valerie K., Meltzer, David E., Journal of College Science Teaching


During the late 1800s, science gained an increasingly important role in the curricula of U.S. high schools and colleges. Ever since then, there have been efforts to transform courses, reform curricula, and make lasting change in how science is taught, both at the college and the high school level. Present-day instructors and discipline-based education researchers can find much to learn in these past efforts, both in their successes and their failures. Through a discipline-specific approach to a course on the history of science education in the United States, we have spurred the interest of college science faculty and future high school science teachers as well as doctoral students in discipline-based education research. The course entails a systematic exploration of past reform efforts and how they have--or have not--impacted the way science is taught on a broad scale. Here, we provide suggestions for those who might want to develop similar courses, particularly in science disciplines other than our own area of physics. We note that there are several valuable publications that provide an overview of the history of science education, most notably the thorough synthesis by DeBoer (1991). However, DeBoer's emphasis is more on broader themes and less on the subject-specific details that are of particular interest to educators in a particular science discipline. Although much has been said and written about the value of using the history of science in teaching science, relatively little is available to guide educators in the various science disciplines through the educational history of their own discipline.

The historical record reveals that discussions by science educators of the 1800s and early 1900s featured many of the same ideas found in today's national reports and debates on science education, as well as in the current literature on science education reform (Meltzer & Otero, 2015). In fact, it is remarkable that many of the present-day themes of emphasis in science education have been so consistently and for such a long time at the center of discussion through the history of science instruction. Specifically, we refer to a focus on activity-based, project-oriented learning founded on scientific induction and an emphasis on deep, conceptual understanding in place of shallow memorization of facts and procedures. These themes were the focus of science educators of the 1880s, 1920s, and 1960s, as well as those of today.

Focusing specifically on the educational history of our own field of physics allowed us to screen thousands of primary source articles in the vast literature on science education, including textbooks and teacher's guides. Along with this filtering, we have used various subject-specific themes for organizing the literature, helping to make these resources accessible and manageable for interested scholars. Our instructors' website archives (in chronological order) much of the physics-specific material and provides annotated reading lists organized by theme (see https://sites.google.com/ site/physicseducationhistory/). We also found, but did not examine in detail, historical material in the disciplines of chemistry, biology, and earth science education. At the end of this paper, we provide references to some of this material to serve as a starting point for those who may wish to design similar courses.

In our course, students gain insight into contemporary challenges faced by science educators by exploring the evolution of U.S. physics teaching over the past 150 years, together with the pedagogical issues and debates that accompanied that evolution. The course is based on primary-source literature written by physicists, educators, and administrators of the day, each of whom addressed the quality, process, and content of physics courses or of physics teacher preparation. The topics and issues discussed are highly relevant and appropriate for analysis of science education at the university level, though they tended to focus more on high school instruction. …

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