If we look to the history of science and engineering, it all begins with phenomena—observations of the natural and human-made worlds that cause one to ask questions and identify problems worth answering and solving. Ancient peoples looked at the world around them and wanted to understand how it worked and how they could use what they saw to address human needs or improve the quality of life. Long before science was even a formalized practice, curiosity about the night sky spurred rigorous observation—and later mathematical modeling. Our ancestors used observation and experiment to learn how to extract metals to make better tools. They developed medicines based on what they noticed happened when certain plants were ingested or applied to the body.
Revisiting the history of science naturally led me to wonder about the history of science education. How did science come to be taught the way it has been taught for so long? Why, historically, has teaching science been so disconnected from the way science is actually done?
I still remember the moment when I experienced this incongruity. It was after my sophomore year in college when I had landed a great summer job at a lab. After my supervisor gave me the rundown for my first experiment, I asked what he expected the result to be. His response: “I don’t know. That’s why you are doing the experiment.” This was the first time in my life—even though I was two years into a college physics major—that I was doing an experiment for which the answer wasn’t already known! Every physics experiment I had done up until that point was to verify a law of physics or measure a fundamental constant; I was graded on how well I performed an experiment that had a known result. Later on, shortly before defending my thesis, I remember my advisor wondered out loud if maybe he should have more often encouraged us, his grad students, to come up with our own questions to investigate. I had joined a lab, without realizing it, where I gained tons of experience conducting investigations, collecting and analyzing data, and communicating findings—but had been handed the questions to be answered and the design of the investigation to answer them. I spent the first six years of my career in academia where I was effective at teaching, but struggled to get a research program off the ground. My stumbling block? Coming up with my own questions to investigate. It’s only in hindsight that I see that while my formal education taught me a lot about science, there were gaps in my learning about how to be a scientist.
How did this happen? I was a high-achieving and successful student. How did learning this slip through the cracks? Have others also had this experience? This got me wondering about how the formal science education system as we know it came to be. I’ve learned through a few Google searches that, by the late 1800s in the United States, science was part of the high school curriculum. “All students—whether they intended to go to college or enter the workforce—were expected to participate in science courses… [including] laboratory work” (Belcher 2018). This expectation led to a widely disseminated list of experiments that should be part of a high school physics course for college-bound students (Harvard University 1889). It was this period of time that spawned the teaching of a rigid definition of “the scientific method” as well the standardization of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in science and other disciplines. The remnants of this way of thinking about science teaching and learning still exist today. It wasn’t until the 1950s that we began to move away from science “as a body of unchanging facts that students must memorize” to a field of study that “is best understood as living discipline with which students engage” (Belcher 2018).
Fast-forward to 2012 and the publication of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012). In contrast to the approach taken to science teaching and learning in the previous century, the Framework firmly grounds the teaching and learning of science in what scientists (and engineers) actually do and how they think, and recognizes phenomena as foundational to the scientific practice of asking questions and the engineering practice of identifying problems. Of course, science education today still emphasizes what students should know, but it importantly also prioritizes what they should know how to do.
Beth Murphy, PhD (email@example.com), is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work.
citation: Murphy, B. 2023. Science, science, everywhere. Connected Science Learning 5 (2). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected-science-learning-april-2023/science-science-everywhere
Harvard University. 1889. ... Descriptive list of elementary physical experiments. Intended for use in preparing students for Harvard college. Cambridge: The University. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/2510200
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.