SHiPS Resource Center ||   Assembling a Historical Module in Science
by Douglas Allchin

Teaching history and nature of science is fun. It engages students -- and it's not as difficult or as time-consuming as it may seem. Modules may fit many formats. Here's one "formula," illustrated in the case study "Of Rice and Men":

FIRST (ideally), select a traditional concept in science whose discovery can be traced to a single individual. Your aim is to guide the student through that same discovery, using the history as a rough model. The history helps you convey "science-in-the-making," including the cultural context, the process of science (experiments, methods, reasoning) and alternative theories. Identify features of the nature of science that seem well exemplified in this episode or case study.

Second, identify and collect information on the problem the scientist was trying to solve. (Note that it may not be the problem we now regard as ultimately being solved!) (a) Elaborate on the cultural context of the problem and its significance. This is critical to motivating student engagement. (b) Document earlier historical efforts to solve the problem (as genuine efforts, not as short-sighted precursors). Profile how those perspectives seemed well warranted. Note that these may reflect student preconceptions and one needs to acknowledge them as legitimate starting points. (c) Delve into the biographical background that proved important to the scientist in solving the problem. Note that many particular, contingent details may be important (not some brute, abstract "method") -- that's OK. It's the context more often than any native genius that leads to discovery.

Third, use the historical information to set the context for students to address the problem and to practice their own thinking skills. It may involve interpreting evidence, imagining alternative explanations, or designing tests. Reflect that you are teaching process of science through example and practice. Use history as a guide (not a script) to highlight important elements. Include a lab -- or introduce original historical data -- where appropriate. Get the students active and involved in thinking. While teaching, reward the process, not the product (good thinking, not the "right" answer).

Fourth, consider the historical reception to the idea. Again, the historical characters may reflect how your students respond. Address alternative interpretations, map out debate and possible follow-up experimental work. You may prepare an epilog that discusses later corrections or important developments beyond the discovery itself.

Fifth, consider other special contexts of the episode you are addressing -- whether ethics, social power, special instruments or new methods, unusual publications or debates, cultural implications of the discovery. Insert and develop these to enrich the science beyond its narrowest focus.

Finally, consider how students may effectively demonstrrate what they have learned -- perhaps by asking them to think or act in historical context (or imagine a dialog between historical characters), perhaps by interpreting alternative data, perhaps by writing reflective comments.

Assemble all your information, visuals, potential labs, etc., in an organized "folder." Chart a map, or flowchart through that information that will guide the student to the discovery on their own, while learning about the process and nature of science.

posted: 6/20/07

  SHiPS helps teachers share resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology in the science classroom. E-mail us at for our quarterly news.