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History and nature of science

By Mary Bigelow

Posted on 2007-10-22

Science Scope cover, October 2007In the local newspaper, an organization advertised its Haunted House event for Halloween. One of the chambers is the laboratory of a “mad scientist.” I’m sure it was full of the usual stereotypes from horror movies.
Compare these caricatures with the work of real scientists in this month’s Science Scope. (You can access the table of contents by clicking on the picture of the cover.) None of the articles this month has a SciLinks connection code, but you can create your own list by logging into the SciLinks site, and in the Member’s Triad Search, select “History and Nature of Science” and “Science as a Human Endeavor” for a list of interesting websites.
One of my favorites is the website of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The Classroom Resources section has a section on Chemical Achievers, with biographies arranged by topic. Rather than just a litany of facts, these biographies have graphics, oral histories, and timelines, organized around themes. Some familiar names are here, as well as some that reflect the diversity of those who have made significant contributions. I can spend hours with this site!
Another good resource is Science as a Human Endeavor . This is part of a site created by teachers to showcase websites that relate directly to the National Science Education Standards.
Although the cover of this month’s journal is beautiful, the four scientists (I recognize Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, but I’m not sure about the fourth one. Any suggestions?) are famous figures from the past. By concentrating on these historical figures, I wonder if we are perpetrating the misconception that science is, as my students might say, “so over.”
How many of our students (and teachers, perhaps) have ever met a real scientist? Museums, government agencies, businesses, and colleges/universities have scientists that can provide our students with real-life examples of what a scientist does. I was involved with a project that brought together two scientists from a natural history museum with local teachers. The herpetologist shared his nationwide research project on frogs and involved the teachers in their own studies of vernal pool amphibians. The entomologist shared her research on endangered species of butterflies and guided the teachers through a study of insect populations in their own schoolyards. It was interesting to watch the interactions between the teachers and these scientists who have a real passion for their work.
In another project, university science professors teamed with K-8 teachers. In addition to conducting hands-on, inquiry-based workshops, the professors visited the teachers’ classrooms on a monthly basis. The students in theses rural schools were astounded to meet real scientists! One child even asked the physics professor if he would autograph his textbook! (I know that writing in textbooks is a no-no, but I would have made an exception in this case.)
A teacher recently asked me for suggestions to replace the library activity in which students prepared “reports” on famous scientists. She wanted students to learn about these scientists, but in the era of electronic encyclopedias and Wikis, having students re-write a list of events and discoveries did not seem like a productive use of students’ time and the school’s technology. We came up with a few ideas (this month’s journal has some great suggestions) for her to try, but perhaps you have some teacher-tested ones already in your lesson plans?
The bottom line here is that the most interesting scientists are not just from the past or the present. Put a mirror on a bulletin board where students can look at scientists of the future!

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