Using History and Biographies in Science

by Jessica E. Zimmer

Science education is most effective when a student is taught to think as a scientist. The most important skills needed beyond the “basic training” provided by lecture and laboratory work are creative thinking, discipline and an adherence to ethical standards. With history and biography, you can demonstrate to students that scientific research is a development of analytical thought. History and biography, in addition to revealing the correct patterns of behavior in a laboratory setting through example, provide a background and alternative perspective of previous work. As a teacher, history and biography allows you to delve into the story of how a scientific principle was developed. You can explore how a combination of fate and the personal character of the scientist brought him or her to the point of discovery. Many students have not had the opportunity to have history and biography integrated into science education. They suffer because their understanding of these topics has been limited. Often, teachers are only given the time and funds to state a principle and demonstrate its applicability in the lab. Schools and school districts have been slow to recognize the need for time and resources so that students can understand the historical context of scientific principles. This is beginning to change with the emphasis placed on historical context in the National Science Education Standards, a set of science standards developed by educators in conjunction with the National Research Council. At Visionlearning, our goal is to provide you with the historical context of major figures in science and their research. We strive to help you give students an understanding of the development and promotion of scientific principles in an easy to use system. Visionlearning teaching modules include historical background in the lesson text, links to biographies of key scientific figures in our right menu Biography section, and classic research papers and scientific recordings in our right menu Classics link section. In addition, our animations help illustrate major breakthroughs in scientific thought.
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History and biography have great potential in the science classroom because they teach students about the accidental and ambiguous nature of science. They keep the focus on research problems (Mendelsohn 2003). History and biography show that research is continual: one question arises from another question (Hagen 2000). As tools, history and biography are viable, but still can be misunderstood. In attempting to summarize a discovery, one can easily get lost in historical details. It does not help that historians and scientists write about the history of science in different ways (Brush 1995: 214). A major problem in using history and biography in science has been the historian’s concept of contextualism. Here the historian considers the ideas of one period without mentioning the theories that followed (Brush 1995: 219). At Visionlearning, we advocate a more comprehensive approach. We push students to consider a timeline of research and the field’s eventual conclusions rather than one scientist’s work. We also consider a global, rather than strictly Western, history of science (Rehbock 2001). You can use history and biography in the classroom in several ways. Scientist biographies and classic research papers can become material for a presentation on a scientist’s life and accomplishments. Your students can follow our links to read about specific noteworthy experiments in an individual’s life or a general historical period. Students can combine the teaching module and links with outside sources to determine how the limitations of gender, sex, class and race were broken by or restrained scientific inquiry. Visionlearning’s teaching modules show that history and biography in science have the potential to instruct students to handle data of all types. Our approach reveals how scientific knowledge is accessed, synthesized, codified and interpreted. When your students learn how scientists used knowledge in the past and are still using it today, it will help them to connect science to everyday life (Hurd 2000). We want to help you show your students that science is not about the classroom or the lab. It is a pathway in understanding how to learn and most importantly, how to ask questions.