The Teaching Career Column: Teaching History in the Science Classroom

Author:  David Meshoulam

Teaching science to young adults is a challenging experience. Students generally enter class feeling one of two emotions: “Science is important, I love it, let’s go!” or “Science is irrelevant, I hate it, let’s go home!” The job of the science teacher is to teach science so that all students may appreciate its beauty, complexity, relevance, and intellectual import.

The first of these, beauty, is, of course, a matter of personality and aesthetic choice, and it can only be hoped that the teacher’s love of the subject will carry over in his or her presentation. Complexity in science is apparent by the information in the textbook, while the relevance is reiterated by its occurrence in daily life and news. Yet, what are ways that students can learn about the intellectual import that science holds? 

Stated another way, how can students learn to see that science is important outside of the field of science itself?

Science is not, as it is often presented in the classroom, a static and divisible field of knowledge. It is not a plain set of formulas, rules, tables, and drawings. Instead, science is a constantly adapting, evolving, and dynamic system. It carries with its own history, full of personalities, intrigues, intense debates, and concepts that have revolutionized even the “real” non-scientific world. By including stories about the development of science, teachers can invigorate the intellectual atmosphere of their classrooms.

The history of science has shown us not only the strength of scientific methodology and discovery, but it has also laid bare the limits of science, its continued ontological and epistemological questions, and its effects on all aspects of our lives in the 21st century. Science, in many ways, makes us confront questions about what the world is made of, what we know about that world, and how we know it. These are big questions, and no science teacher should shrink from the responsibility of teaching to these questions. 

Probably the most explicit and common example of the import of these questions is the debate between Scholastics (those who relied on Aristotelian ideas) and early modern scientists. This debate usually centers itself in the time of mid to late 16th century, with figures such as Descartes, Galileo, and Newton. Thinkers of this era discussed many issues in philosophy; one such issue was motion. For the purposes of our discussion we will focus specifically on the arguments surrounding free-fall.

Aristotle, nearly 2,000 years ago, stated that the “speed” of an object in free fall is directly proportional to its “weight”. (Aristotle, like his contemporaries, had no quantitative measurement for either quality, so I present both words in quotation marks.) Yet, it took human kind nearly two millennia to discover the fallacy of Aristotle’s argument. We now know that all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of their weight (as long as air resistance is negligible). A simple experiment of dropping two rocks – one twice the weight of the other - easily dismisses Aristotle’s argument. Yet, no one seemed to carry out this experiment for 2,000 years! What gives? It certainly isn’t that our intellectual ancestors were stupid, or that they didn’t carefully examine their arguments. No, in fact, these ancient ideas were sustained for so long because they made sense to many people. A valuable lesson for the classroom is this: why did scientists end up discarding the ancient theory and replace it with a new one? And, why does it matter?

These questions do not have easy answers – many scholars continue to debate them today – but an essential point in their examination will lead young thinkers (and teachers!) to realize that science carries with it lots of baggage. The Aristotelians thought the way they did about the natural world because they saw the natural world in a very different way. Likewise, Galileo and Newton were revolutionary not because of what they discovered, but because of the way that they approached the natural world. Their new theory, of course, valued quantification and experimentation, but it also changed the discourse of science and thought in general by shifting explanation out of the Scholastic realm of teleological causes and into the realm of reducible explanative statements. This movement threatened so many because it eventually forced a culture to shift its entire approach to the natural world, themselves, and their intellectual pursuits.

For students, this can serve as a powerful and liberating lesson. Ideas and facts are not always what they appear to be. Skepticism and critical analysis of basic assumptions can change the world. And because science continues to hold a valued position within our society, it is important for young adults to not only know the science but also to understand its intellectual foundation. For, only through critical analysis can we hope to create vibrant thinkers.

History of science provides us with a powerful tool through which we can nurture such thinking. By introducing “external” issues into the science classroom, students who often see science as an enterprise that lacks meaning may find new meaning by looking at science historically. Science can become a field not only relevant to their world, but also a field that introduces them to new ways of thinking about their place in that world.