Teaching Science through History

History as a Tool in Science Education*

Douglas Allchin

Program in the History of Science,Technology and Medicine
University of Minnesota

Conant's renowned Harvard Case Studies in Experimental Science (1957) offers one strategy for teaching science through historical simulation: guided encounter with original documents and laboratory demonstrations. But the use of history—whether to develop thinking skills or to reveal the broader "human" context of scientific activity—varies from the explicit to the implicit only (e.g., Sánchez 1989), from the conspicuous to the clandestine. Here I survey some of the many ways teachers have applied history as a tool (rather than merely an endpoint) in teaching science. With an eye for enriching actual classroom practice, one may use this rather synpotic focus to explore how to organize existing curriculum materials and develop further resources. Given a spectrum of aims, then, how can historians and philosophers of science, educational researchers and science teachers themselves best contribute to using history to enhance teaching science?

From Educational Theory to Classroom Practice

In recent years, we have seen numerous arguments for a sometimes programmatic role for history of science in science teaching (e.g., Brush 1989a; Kauffman 1989; Kenealy 1989; Shortland and Warwick, eds., 1989). While recognizing the value of such arguments on a theoretical level, here I focus more directly on the values that teachers can experience in the classroom (e.g., Arons 1989, Wandersee 1990). At this level of practice, one finds a variety of aims and contexts in which historical strategies can be effective, each of which needs to be articulated. This shift in perspective begins the move from "why" questions to "how" methods.

1. Celebrating Discoveries and Great Scientists: Exemplifying the Value of Science and Portraying Role Models

Perhaps the most common use of history of science is to celebrate landmark discoveries and "great" scientists. On one level, this connects scientific knowledge—often viewed as objective and impersonal—to specific names, faces, times and places. Science thus gains a "human" dimension (more below). Generally, however, the immediate aim is simply to appreciate scientific achievements. In such cases, history is not merely history for its own sake. When we laud a discovery, we indirectly convey on a deeper level a value in science itself and in novel ideas. We thereby convey implicit standards for student success. Such images can, of course, become internalized by students as goals. Discussion of great scientists likewise may potentially establish role models. History may thus help broadly recruit more participants in science.

Establishing role models may be especially important for those students who, inundated by images of science in popular culture, may not likely envision themselves as becoming scientists. Recently we have focused on improving the status of women and ethnic minorities in science and engineering (e.g., Brush 1985; Schiebinger 1987), and many have looked to science education as one remedy (e.g., Barba et al. 1992). In these cases, we may elect to take a deliberately unrepresentative sample of historical achievements (dominated by white European males) to ensure a more balanced prospect. If we are aiming for diverse representation in science, we may also want to be concerned about other categories, such as economic class, personality type (introverted vs. extroverted; competitive vs. cooperative), or thinking style (mathematical vs. verbal; visual vs. kinesthetic; abstract vs. concrete; speculative vs. conservative). The historical role models we select or emphasize will affect who likely pursues careers in science. It is not yet clear, however, whether role models should be explicit (as a way to expose and undermine current stereotypes—e.g., Martin 1989) or implicit (as a way to convey the "naturalness" of diversity, say—see Haraway 1991).

Historians may also be concerned that an exclusive emphasis on "heroes" and dramatic discoveries may be misleading. Sensitivity to context, for example, can reveal that dividing scientists into "winners" (to be acknowledged) and "losers" (to be neglected as "fools") inadequately captures the texture of contributions to science (see esp. Gould 1977). Renowned discoverers may not be the only exemplars of "good" scientists.

Sometimes, too, the role models we construct—of a Newton, a Darwin, a Curie or Carver, as "geniuses"—can become "superhuman" and thus seem as hopelessly unattainable as they are attractive. Paradoxically, perhaps, favorably biased portraits may be inviting precisely because they distort or "dishonestly" convey what it really means to be a scientist (Brush 1974; Holton 1978). One challenge, then, is to make scientists seem "human" in scale, perhaps demystifying their achievements and openly recognizing their flaws.

In general, a teacher may profit from reflecting on how historical representations (or misrepresentations) of science subtly convey values and norms. We often find it convenient, for example, to credit single individuals, though achievements are rarely due to one person alone. Revolutionary reconceptions, as well, are often compounded from many earlier, more modest contributions (Brannigan 1981; see also e.g., recent reasssessments of the Chemical Revolution in Donovan 1988). Further, emphasizing conceptual achievements rather than innovations in instrumentation or technology—or theoreticians rather than laboratory technicians—conveys a strong bias about the value of intellect versus labor (Shapin 1988). Plainly, we need to be sensitive to the sometimes hidden morals or lessons implicit in our explicit uses of history.

2. Providing Developmental Themes and Story Lines

Discoveries may also be addressed in the context of conceptual development. That is, the history of the emergence of a concept or a family of concepts over many decades or even centuries, say, about atomism, electromagnetism, or genetics, may structure and unify a series of lessons (Edgar Johnson; Egan 1986; Luhl 1990; Shahn 1990; Wandersee 1990). The discussion of an individual discovery may become more fine-grained and highlight the reasoning or experimental process more closely (e.g., Gooding 1989). The temporal-developmental framework is another way for students to approach and structure ideas and to see how the horizon of scientific inquiry changes.

In some cases, however, it seems worthwhile to "confuse" the chronology. William Harvey, for example, did not examine squid, but their three hearts—one body heart and two gill hearts—help to illustrate the roles of the separate sides of the human heart and can contribute, along with Harvey's own observations, to building a conception of circulation (Allchin, 1993). One might use computers, too, to good advantage, though they were not available to the likes of Galileo or Proust.

3. Teaching Process of Science

The history of science is also valuable as a "how-story" of science. That is, it allows students to appreciate how concepts emerge: from confusion, ambiguity, surprise or deliberate probing, sometimes dramatically in sudden insights, sometimes gradually and with great difficulty. Through case studies or commentary, we can convey themes in the historical process of science. For example, one may introduce the role of serendipity or chance, and how, perhaps, as Pasteur commented, "chance favors only the prepared mind": a theme commonly associated with, say, Pasteur's own principle of vaccination or Röntgen's investigations of X-rays, but also occurring far more widely (see Beveridge 1950, pp. 37-55; Judson 1981, pp. 68-75; Roberts 19—; Kohn 1989). Apparent independent or "multiple" discoveries (such as Newton's and Liebniz's work on calculus, and Darwin's and Wallace's on natural selection) allow students to speculate on the perhaps contrasting concept of the inevitability of scientific discovery (Merton 1973, pp. 343-82). Alternatively, one may discuss the role of prediction, often exemplified by Halley's dating a comet's return, or by Mendeleev's arguments for new elements based on his periodic table (e.g., Judson 1981, pp. 132-58). A historical context allows one to highlight how different factors contribute to the development of ideas and of scientific practice itself, from the availability of observational tools or communication among scientists (e.g. Ziman 1976, pp. 90-119), to funding for research or institutional politics.

History also provides an opportunity for exploring many philosophical issues. In some cases, scientists have "detoured" to consider the nature of proof as part of reaching a consensus on the "facts" themselves. In the late eighteenth century, for example, they debated how to interpret evidence for unobservable entities such as atoms, electric fluids, organic molecules, aetherial fluids in the nervous system and gravitational corpuscles (Laudan 1984, pp. 56-59). Espinet (1990) points out how the controversy between Newton's and Goethe's theories of light and color were likewise grounded in contrasting methodologies. History can demonstrate, therefore, that the generation of knowledge is itself far from straightforward and even that our standards of "scientific" evidence are far from static. A narrative format can also show how concepts unfold through human agency. That is, they are not found preformed and merely "discovered" like shells on a beach, but are actively assembled from contextually motivated questions, available cultural ideas, analogies, selective observations and experimental manipulations. This principle has more recently been "discovered" (?) and highlighted by many sociologists of science (e.g., Latour and Woolgar 1979; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Pickering 1984) and by advocates of constructivism in educational theory (e.g., von Glasersfeld 1988; Yager 1991).

4. Teaching Concepts

The use of history can, of course, be more active and participatory. Historical episodes often conveniently model how students may actively (re)construct concepts on their own. They show how specific ideas may emerge given certain conceptual resources, questions and the chance to investigate. That is, students may learn through historical simulation, exemplified in one form by the now classic case studies developed by Conant (1957) and Klopfer (195-) in the 1950s. A variation on this strategy is for students to become engaged in imaginary dialogues, based on historical figures (Lockhead and Dufresne 1989; Collison 1992). When individuals situate themselves historically to answer questions, they can gain a deeper sense of "owning" both the problems and the resultant solutions.

In some cases, it may be worth disguising the history. Mention of Darwin, for instance, often elicits stereotyped or parroted views of natural selection as "survival of the fittest" or a conception of evolution as a teleological process leading to man. By introducing the historical puzzles about biogeography, species and varieties, and domestic breeding instead, without any "clues," one can reconstruct the concepts with more texture: flowers with more nectar may be more "fit" simply by having a reproductive advantage; and lineages may split through geographical isolation and adaptive divergence, forming a branching relationship between all species.

In other cases, one may wish to diverge from the history as we know it. We typically regard the theory of combustion based on oxygen as replacing the explanation based on phlogiston, the principle of combustibility. Yet careful historical analysis of late phlogistonists shows that they had strong reasons for not abandoning their concept—reasons based on understanding how burning related to light, heat, phosphorescence and even electricity—all aspects of what we would call energy (Allchin 1992). In an open-ended simulation, one could well ask students how to reframe the concept of phlogiston, in light of Laovisier's findings, and how to continue research on these relevant questions—questions that historically were answered only much later when approached again from a different context. If history is indeed contingent, and we allow students to begin retracing some if its path, we should not be surprised if our students reach different endpoints. By comparing their own work with history, students may come to appreciate the relationship between conceptual content and form of expression.

5. Teaching Process Skills

When students are allowed to recapitulate history in their own development, they also develop the skills of doing science. One need only highlight and articulate features of the students' experience to show how it can be applied to other cases of inquiry (e.g., Beveridge 1950; Wilson 1990). Other historical examples may help to reinforce or illustrate those skills (e.g., Goldstein and Goldstein 1978; Judson 1981). Students may find affirmation in learning afterwards that they have replicated the work of respected scientists of the past.

Of course, one need not use history at all to teach about how to frame problems, how to design experiments, or how to reason about their results. But history can serve as a valuable resource for understanding how scenarios might be successfully re-created in the classroom. The original problem contexts, in particular, help to highlight which experimental demonstrations will be most relevant, and suggest how to design fruitful, "genuine" laboratory exercises for students. Historical examples also allow the teacher to anticipate the various possibilities that students may encounter in their work: they serve as a baseline for assessing whether students are fully engaged in the creative process (Confrey and Smith 1989).

Among the elements of process that history can demonstrate is the growth of knowledge through criticism and the negotiation of interpretations in the community (e.g., Lakatos 1963; Latour and Woolgar 1979; Pickering 1984; Rudwick 1985). Re-enactments of debates or forums for students to argue amongst themselves about how to interpret historical evidence also capture some of the social process of science (e.g., Johnson and Stewart 1991).

6. Identifying Potential Misconceptions and Ways to Address Them

One of the most profound ways in which history helps to teach concepts is by showing how students may "misconceive" them or conceive them in alternative frameworks (Wandersee 1986). Medieval notions of impetus, for example, often parallel students' intuitions (Robin and Ohlsson 1989), as do many Aristotelean concepts of motion (Carvalho 1990) (see also Driver and Easley 1978; Clement 1983; McCloskey 1983; and Mas et al., 1968, on conceptions of gases). History cannot only allow teachers to anticipate such potential difficulties, but also to identify critical experimental findings, arguments or ways of seeing that may lead students to more sophisticated views. Here, again, history may well be used clandestinely, merely to provide clues that guide the teacher.

7. Teaching about Conceptual Change

Sometimes, as with many basic misconceptions, the narrative of science is not merely about how a concept originates. It may be about how a theory is wholly upended (Kuhn 1962). The dramatic shifts in world view of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions obviously exemplify the extremes of such reconceptualizations. Here, the historical data is especially important, because it reveals all the likely conceptual hurdles that different students will encounter (e.g., Machold 1990, on objections to special relativity theory; see also Nersessian 1989). Students may be consoled, perhaps, knowing that their criticisms, reservations or difficulties were shared by other great thinkers of the past. On the other hand, a teacher's knowledge of the conceptual variants may be merely hidden reference points, where the aim is to convey the concept, not merely repeat the historical event.

In some cases, one may consider a more radical reworking of history. To convey an appreciation of the Copernican Revolution, for instance, one wants students to understand how entrenched, unproblematic and even "natural" a world view can become—much as the earth-centered view is currently. An effective strategy today, therefore, is to try to reverse the revolution in the classroom. That is, one can enlist the (counter-)arguments for a Ptolemaic view from the early 17th century (e.g. the "Tower argument" of freefall—Feyerabend 1975, pp. 69-92, 152-56) to unsettle and dislodge the students' often complacent acceptance of geocentrism. Even 8th-graders quickly become aware of the many assumptions and network of information required to defend either view. Here, sensitivity to historical context (of the "rear-guard") provides a teacher with material to issue a playful challenge to the students and to motivate them to assess the nature of proof and evidence, even for what they already "know."

Reviewing historical episodes of conceptual change in class discussion can also lead to philosophical considerations about what grounds scientific theories and how they change. How should we characterize scientific knowledge, its permanence, reliability or authority? A sensitive image of history helps to qualify both naive views of progress and casually dismissive claims about the complete relativism of knowledge.

8. Showing the "Human" Dimension to Science

Often, one of the messages we want to convey is that science and technology are activities conducted by and for real people. That is, research is motivated by sheer curiosity about the world around us and by efforts to improve the human condition—feelings that the students share or can easily appreciate. We can convey relevance in many ways, but history allows us to recover the original contexts of invention or discovery. In addition, the fate of knowledge or technologies since their appearance may reveal how such relevance may either persist or change.

We can also convey how scientists or engineers themselves are real people. Sometimes their personalities affect their research style or even the content of their theories (e.g., Ziman 1976, pp. 68-89). Their motivations, for instance, can be visible through the acrimony of priority disputes, the behind-the-scenes politics of publishing or getting grants, ambition for Nobel prizes, and even the presentation of fraudulent specimens or data. The very "human" process of investigation, exposed historically, often contrasts with students' views about the apersonal objectivity or "out-thereness" of knowledge: research is not an impersonal pursuit.

Nor is scientific practice isolated from other human affairs. History is replete, of course, with fascinating or humorous anecdotes, whether about the shape of Darwin's nose (nearly preventing his voyage on the Beagle), or the metal nose of astronomer Tycho Brahe (reportedly replacing what was lost in a duel). Such stories are simply entertaining and add texture to our stories about experimentation or reasoning processes.

One form of historical narrative that can be particularly dramatic—literally dramatic—is role-playing. That is, as exemplified by Richard Eakin in his Great Scientists Speak Again (1975), a teacher (or invited guest) may act the part of the scientist or other person involved in science or the contemporary response to a discovery (see also Randak 1991; the Theater Dept. at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, has many scripts which they perform regularly and conducts annual workshops). Such portrayals are especially vivid, of course, and contribute to an image of the vitality of science. The undeniable theatrics, here, may well entitle one to bend history playfully, sometimes even to embrace anachronisms—without sacrificing respect for the genuine history. Douglas Llewelyn, as Isaac Newton, for instance, chastises students if they have forgotten their calculus texts—as a way of dramatizing Newton's preoccupation with priority of discovery; Edward Awad, as Benjamin Franklin, comfortably congratulates his audience on the modern devices he uses to help demonstrate some of his findings, and as he mentions the role of correspondence between scientists, reminds his audience that "we didn't have FAX machines." While audaciously "violating" a "proper" historical perspective, such activities may actually enhance sensitivity to the differences in context.

9. Highlighting the Cultural Basis of Ideas and Research

The message about the human context of science can sometimes be extended to highlight its broader social dimensions. History provides examples of how scientific ideas have realigned cultural attitudes, even world views, and how technologies have materially affected industry, labor, lifestyles, etc. (e.g., Latour 19—). Predominant social values have also entered science in the reverse direction, sometimes substantially promoting productive research, sometimes (most notably in cases of race, sex, ethnicity or power) biasing its results (e.g., Merton 1973, pp. 228-53; Kamin 1974; Gould 1981; Jones 1981; Lewontin, Kamin and Rose 1984; Bleier 1984; Haraway 1989). History shows how science and society are intertwined.

It can also be fruitful simply to provide a social portrait of the period and place in which certain scientific ideas emerged and, sometimes, how science was regarded differently. In this way, for example, we learn how science was practiced differently in India, Africa, China or Mesoamerica than it was in Greece or Renaissance Europe (e.g. Ronan 1985).

Finally, the way in which the resources for research are distributed through socio-economic forces is a way to remind students that science is an enterprise, more than just a process for establishing reliability of results (e.g., Ziman 1976, pp. 240-280). In some cases, the re-enactment of historical public debates in class can sensitize students to the multiple contexts in which scientific results function (e.g., Solomon 1989).


Perhaps all the historically oriented strategies mentioned above may be characterized as deepening science teaching by recovering the context of science. But the context of science is so rich and varied that it may be better to speak pluralistically of the many contexts of science. The complexity involves ideas, individuals, instruments and institutions; and processes of reasoning and interpersonal interaction, as well as economics and politics. Clearly, different contexts will be worth highlighting historically in different cases: there will be a wide spectrum of "simulation" strategies.

One may note, especially, that the application of history in science teaching, as opposed to its representation, involves many aims that most historians of science might not imagine in their own work. In many contexts it seems appropriate to adapt (Harvey, above), rework (phlogiston), disguise (Darwin), distort (minority role models), or even upend (Copernicus) the history itself. That is (contra Gruender, 1990), one may well "corrupt" the history.

As long as the aim is to portray science as it "really" is (or was), however, science educators must also maintain a deep respect for history, else they betray the subject they hope to enlighten. Radical transformation of our knowledge of history need not—and should not (despite some cavalier comments above)—mean sacrificing historical sensitivity. Teachers need to "listen" carefully to history: to recognize the flaws of scientific "heroes" or the social contexts which mean that science is never absolutely "pure." They need to see students who have alternative conceptions of basic principles as often justified historically, not merely "wrong." And they need to avoid being lulled into accepting apocryphal stories, simplisitic interpretations about "genius," or easy philosophical distinctions between "right" and "wrong" methods. Good historians are careful to acknowledge how their narratives "lie" by using certain interpretive perspectives or by omitting some features of the episode; likewise, science teachers need to reflect on how their uses of history may contain hidden morals or otherwise be implicitly biased.

Finally, one may note that the uses of history in science teaching are neither uniform nor comprehensive. History is not an overarching framework through which science inevitably makes sense. One may well consider Wandersee's caveat, for example, that historical vignettes ought not to form a universal method, but instead "ought to be interspersed with contemporary science content on an occasional basis" (1990, p. 279, emphasis in original). Brush agrees that "there is nothing wrong with a piecemeal approach, treating some topics historically and the rest in a more traditional way" (1989b, p. 58). More plainly, history may best be viewed as a teaching tool and, like any tool, is most effective when used properly in the appropriate contexts.

Planning Curriculum and Resources

One aim in reviewing the multiple roles of history in science teaching (above) is to provide a basis for exploring how we might effectively develop curriculum materials and assemble resources for practice.


First, if we are to apply history to science teaching, rather than merely teach history of science in a science setting, we cannot merely import historical material without attending to its new functional context. That is, we must learn how to adapt conventional histories into components for a science curriculum. For example, we may need to integrate or couple both internal and external accounts. Or where we aim to highlight the conceptual dynamics, we may want to strip away some of the particulars of the persons and (like the much lampooned Lakatos) relegate some of the details of history "as it actually happened" to footnotes. For this to be done without injury either to historical knowledge or to the historian's perspective, teachers and historians will need to work together and/or look to persons with joint expertise in both history and science education. That is, collaboration is essential.

To the extent that philosophy and sociology of science further enrich historical interpretations suitable for conveying the nature of science, collaboration will also naturally involve philosophers and sociologists of science—extending the network of participants. Indeed, feminists, marxists and those with other "interested" perspectives, as well, may all potentially contribute to a full, robust science curriculum.

The direction of information flow or benefit, however, may not always be from those who study science to those who teach it. The specific needs of the science educational context may identify where information is incomplete and thus where further work in history or science studies can be directly fruitful. The educational context may also suggest more actively new avenues of research. The context of appreciating alternative student conceptions, for example, may reawaken historical interest in Brahe, Kircher and Gilbert, who each suggested world systems different from Copernicus. Sociologists may likewise take possible cues from the process by which students, as "naive" researchers, learn to accommodate their different interpretations of experimental findings. Constructivist principles in education (in contrast to those in sociology) may underscore for philosophers the layered or developmental (rather than hierarchial or reductive) structure of theories (already suggested in Wimsatt, 1987b). The prospective relationship between science teacher and historian, philosopher or sociologist of science, therefore, may well be viewed as reciprocal, or mutually beneficial.

Courses and Textbooks

A first impulse may well be to develop new historically oriented curricula and textbooks. One may well approach this proposal with caution, however. Several historically based curricula have already been developed and textbooks written to guide them (e.g., Harvard Project Physics — Rutherford, Holton and Brush 1970). While well respected and even lauded within certain circles, these texts have found only limited success—and many have gone out of print (e.g., Arons 1965). We may envision either reviving or revising such texts (e.g., Holton 1956/Brush 19—), yet we may also pause to consider why such texts have not found a wider audience. It may be that other alternatives involving less capital investment, time or teacher "re-tooling" may be equally effective, at least until we develop broader support for such large scale projects.

Further, while history may serve as a framework for course organization, it is not clear that we need historically organized textbooks. Indeed, the models of education currently gaining favor promote more active teacher-student and student-student interaction, suggesting that textbooks should not be central to instruction at all. While still serving a role as references of concepts, texts may not be the most appropriate medium for historical learning.

More importantly, perhaps, historical material needs to be made available for a variety of curricula. Individual teachers, as well as school departments or district committees, need foremost the basic resources to be recombined to suit local circumstances. Effective design of curricular materials may therefore be more modular. This is commensurate with a teacher-centered approach (see esp. recommendations in the Project 2061 report—Rutherford and Ahlgren 1990, pp. 198-199). That is, teachers must be viewed (and encouraged and respected) in their creative role of assembling particular constellations of available materials to suit their own schools and class profiles. At best, prescribed curricula can serve as models to be shaped by local resources and teaching objectives, and personal teaching strengths. It is the resources for individual lessons, units or teaching modules that need to be developed.

Episodic Focus

The greatest challenge in transforming conventional histories for science classrooms may be in organizing—or reorganizing—material. Primary in the educational context, of course, is achieving an understanding of the concepts themselves. One may take as central, therefore, the historical origin of individual concepts. Single (even if complex) episodes therefore can serve as the critical focal points for elaborating the various contexts enumerated above.

Episodic focus may be especially valuable for organizing several concepts (or episodes) along different thematic lines. One may follow a more conventional development of content, for example (as in the British Schools History Project's "Medicine Through Time" or "Energy Through Time"). One may equally elect to combine a group of episodes that develop a particular set of experimental skills, or that highlight a particular philosophical issue—say, the relation of science and religion, or conceptions of realism. Episodic organization also means that one need not follow strict chronology where it does not align with one's curricular objectives. Alternatively, where chronology is the guiding theme, as in many new cross-disciplinary programs, it should facilitate the transition from from one discipline to the next. Conceptual episodes form units common to all these applications, yet allow multiple dimensions of science to be treated simultaneously.

Choice of episodes may itself be critical. While we will no doubt want to focus on well known landmarks, we may be equally attentive to episodes or concepts that highlight women, minorities, or other cultures. In this way, we can portray both the universal practice of seeking knowledge and the diverse approaches or methods in doing so. Technological achievements, too, may be documented as well as concepts.

Notably, episodes allow teachers to approach historical methods piecemeal. By focusing on only one concept at a time, they do not require overhauling a whole curriculum all at once. Material arranged by episodes may thus serve as a critical transitional device to using more historical approaches, while also supporting continued growth and knowledge among those already using historical methods.


To accommodate a focus on episodes and concepts, while also addressing the need for diverse perspectives, one may adopt a strategy of constructing `folders'. The folder, as an information storage/retrieval concept, allows one to collect material from disparate sources that may be unified in theme but not in style. That is, experts on particular scientists, sociology, the nature of science, conceptual development in students, etc., may each contribute to a common "folder," though they may normally not find reasons for sharing their work with each other. Teachers will thus find information assembled in one place—categorized by scientific concept/episode—for enriching a given concept or for teaching the concept more effectively. From the assembled collection, they will be able to select the features that will be most appropriate to highlight in a given classroom activity.

As depicted in the first part above, folders may contain a number of elements. They may (and perhaps ideally should) include:

  • the historical setting, including contemporary (local?) "news" events and musical or artistic images
  • cultural context(s) of discovery, especially where similar or overlapping concepts have emerged in different cultures, or where pervasive ideas in society have significantly shaped scientific thought
  • the contemporary context of science as a practice—sources of funding or patronage; authority of scientists; disciplinary divisions; etc.
  • accounts of original questions and contexts for research—to situate any "discovery" in an ongoing practice and to revive uncertainties
  • accounts of discovery, including experimental design and apparatus, skills, and reasoning patterns (both experimental and theoretical), possibly distributed among many members of a community
  • alternative conceptions of the data and their contextual justification (plausible accounts for not accepting the new ideas), and summaries of information or arguments that helped resolve debates
  • for experimental simulations: craft knowledge (e.g., Sibum et al. 1990)
  • biographical material on "significant" figures (but esp. women and minorities), highlighting entertaining or humorous anecdotes, motivations for research, and including at least a few images of imperfection
  • for role-playing: portraits (young, old) and brief characterizations of the scientist's personality and/or common gestures
  • copies of original papers or documents (diaries, letters, notebooks) or excerpts from them; contemporary illustrations
  • simulation possibilities for historical dialogues, debates or imaginary symposia
  • discussion of relevant issues about the nature of science, such as the roles of chance, prediction, styles of argument, standards of evidence, or fraud
  • historical implications of the concept, both scientifically and socially
  • bibliography of relevant films, videos and computer software (e.g., Grant 1989).

An episode folder is thus similar to, but extends well beyond what Conant (1947) earlier framed as an experimental case study. First, a teacher may find original documents, supplemented by scientific and biographical commentary, as found in Shamos (1987), Baumel and Berger (1973) or Pi Suñer (1955). But as in Harré (1983), the "prehistory" and aftermath of any experiment may also also examined. Experiments (whether as demonstrations or laboratories) should also be included (e.g., as in Conant and Harré, or Ellis 1989). The collage or mosaic that results is strengthened by its diversity.

Since the material will originate and be used piecemeal, the format for a folder need not be a bound text (see, for example, Grossman Publishers' Jackdaw Series, or the SATIS files produced by the British Assoc. for Science Education). One of the virtues of this format is that the contents are easily amended. Thus, as new historical, philosophical or sociological interpretations emerge, they can be added to existing material in a timely manner and without major republication.

Institutional Links

The issue of updating information for classroom use is critical: no resource can be regarded as permanent. We know, for example, that historical knowledge—and the philosophical and sociological models that help shape them—are no more static than scientific knowledge. We thus need to maintain regular channels that will ensure that new interpretations reach teachers. That is, if we apply what Latour (1987) says about the "sociologics" of science to science education, we will need to link the interests of teachers and historians (etc.) socially, and not merely through an occasional text. We may keep in mind, then, that the development of resources includes installing institutional mechanisms for their "repair" or revision. If the relationship can indeed be viewed as reciprocal (as described above), we can look forward to a rich and continuing collaboration between science teachers, historians of science and their allies.


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*This paper was originally presented as "Conspicuous History, Clandestine History: A Spectrum of Simulation Strategies," at the Second International History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching Conference, Kingston, Ontario, 1992.

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