Why teach history of science?

The Science Teachers Association of New York State (STANYS) asked me to be keynote speaker at their 125th annual conference, which was an honor. The presentation primarily focused on five keys to teaching scientific literacy. This post is about one of them: teaching students some history of science. (The previous post identifies all five keys.)

The title of my 30-minute presentation was “Teaching for scientific literacy, in a pandemic.” (A recording is available online beginning at 17 minutes 20 seconds, and for those who want a quick overview, you can download a copy of the slides and an edited text version of the talk.)

When the Next Generation Science Standards was being developed, the National Science Teachers Association wrote that it was important “to make it clear that all students need to understand the nature of science and the history of science.” However, in the end history was barely mentioned in the NGSS, or in most state standards. Why does that matter? The answer is that knowing a little about the history of science helps students understand the nature of science and how science fits into society. Fortunately, teaching a little bit of history is easy because it takes hardly any time.

A timely example is that opposition to science based on religion, ideology, or simply asserting that something is true, without evidence (as many people in the White House have done during the pandemic), is a familiar and distressing phenomenon. In the early 1600s, when Galileo found evidence that heavenly bodies move around one another, the Church, which was incredibly powerful, ignored the evidence, called Galileo a heretic, and placed him under house arrest. He was courageous, and in the long term his ideas were accepted. In the short term, the Church was powerful and it set back humanity’s search for truth.

More recently, a twentieth-century agronomist named Trofim Lysenko rejected the theory of natural selection and other widely accepted ideas about genetics. Lysenko was utterly wrong but he was strongly supported by Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. He set back Soviet agriculture by decades, and was responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths. Some scientists were even executed simply for rejecting what Lysenko claimed to be true.

Thousands of unnecessary deaths were caused by relying on false “science.” That should sound familiar to anyone who has lived through the pandemic. Students should learn that scientists have been held back by ideologues before. Teaching students about Galileo and Lysenko, for example, can help inoculate young people against new false scientific claims made by powerful people. In the face of global climate change and a worldwide pandemic, the stakes of accepting settled science are higher than ever, and more students need to learn some history of science to become scientifically literate.

Several weeks after the keynote talk, Ed. magazine, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), published an issue called “Pivot: The Future of Education in a World Turned Sideways.” That issue contains an essay I wrote about the need to improve science education, including the following paragraph:

Professor Fletcher Watson, who taught at HGSE for more than 30 years, wrote that he made some science education colleagues uncomfortable by prioritizing the word “education” over “science.” His point was that experts need to think broadly, beyond their areas of specialization. Although science educators have some first-rate ideas, one does not need to be an expert to identify many key elements of scientific literacy; that is a task for everyone.

I am grateful to Watson and my other science education mentors for exposing me to their clear and broad-minded thinking about science education. Watson was one of the developers of Harvard Project Physics (HPP), a more humanistic approach than other high school physics curricula of its day. HPP included some key events in the history of science in order to illustrate how scientists do their work.

James Rutherford was also a co-developer of HPP, and later directed the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, which in 1989 published Science for All Americans (quoted in the preceding blog post). Science for All Americans includes an entire chapter called Historical Perspectives, which explains why learning about history of science is important.

Another mentor was Irma Jarcho, with whom I taught at the New Lincoln School. She was interested in and taught K-12 students about all aspects of science, including the impacts of science and technology on society and ethical issues raised by science. In 1982 Jarcho and several of her colleagues founded the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, which is published to this day.

It is troubling to see what a narrow view of scientific literacy is reflected in current standards documents after all the work done by an earlier generation of science educators. Eliminating a focus on the history of science provides a good illustration of the problem.


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