Peter Heering, Stephen Klassen and Don Metz : Enabling Scientific Understanding Through Historical Instruments and Experiments in Formal and Non-formal Learning Environments. Flensburg Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science in Science Education

Science & Education 24 (3):339-341 (2015)

Katharine Anderson
Carnegie Mellon University
These proceedings of the International Conference for the History of Science in Science Education (ICHSSE) 2012 offer a snapshot of the work and conversations at an increasingly busy intersection: history of science, museum and science center staff, and science educators. The backgrounds of the editors reflect this mixture. Peter Heering, of the University of Flensburg, where the 2012 conference was held, is a historian and a leading figure in the field of replication studies, in which researchers and students re-build apparatus and re-enact scientific experiments in order to recover historical perspectives lost to view in the documentary sources. His is a scholarly labour that is both impressively rich and impressively time-consuming. Stephen Klassen and Don Metz are specialists in physics education from Winnipeg, Canada, developing techniques of story-telling and biography to energize science curriculum. Both the editors and conference participants shared an interest in bringing scientific instruments and contextualist approaches to the foreground in the classroom and, also, more informal spaces like the museum or science centre. The 25 chapters in this volume fall into four sometimes overlapping categories. The first section contains papers on historical episodes such as critical experiments. The second focuses on different methods of using historical records in teaching situations, at levels from teacher training to late elementary students. The third section explores projects developed in science museums or science centres, with contributions drawn from the work of leading institutions like the Deutsches Museum, the Smithsonian Museum, University of Pavia, and with a welcome South American example from São Carlos, Brazil. A section representing formal studies of science pedagogy closes the volume. The collection as a whole is dominated by case studies involving the physical sciences, but there are also valuable studies which turn to the life sciences. The energy and excitement in many of the classrooms and projects described in the case studies in this volume is impressive. Many readers will approach this collection pragmatically. If this volume can be considered as a toolkit, which tools are most versatile? Or, to change the metaphor to a more horticultural one, what methods can be most easily be transplanted? The technical support and most of all the extended time required for replication studies is a well known barrier in many settings, and this volume gives interesting examples of the efforts to overcome the barrier. Peter Heering’s contribution to the volume, “Make—Keep—Use”, gives an account of a project called the “Project Galilei”, which trained teachers to lead secondary students in the construction and use of replicas that then became part of the school’s equipment. The project had mixed success—the kinds of instrument that could be made in the short time available in the curriculum was limited; and the teacher training portion was critical. Another version of a solution to the barriers of replication was the Danish project,, which loaned a collection of replica navigational instruments to high schools for a few weeks at a time. Several other chapters in the volume stress the importance of doing as well as reading or listening. Elizabeth Cavicchi’s eloquent account of her work at the Egerton Center at MIT training teachers cover a variety of hands-on learning projects, from working with Euclidean geometry to Galilean relative motion. The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, building on a similar teacher-training summer institute, extended its work with replicas to school-age children at short field-trips to the museum. Here the engagement with replicas is much more superficial than is possible with more extended work, and so may offer little more, perhaps, than the ‘science theatre’ tradition. Yet the numbers of students it can reach is huge. Another more in-depth approaches that remain quite widely accessible, however, is digging for the identity and provenance of an unknown object. An example is recorded in a very straightforward manner by Maximilian Wottrich, a gymnasium student from Augsburg, who investigated an unidentified magnetic–electrical apparatus by a Vienna instrument maker. Remarkable here is the sense that closing the story—finding the answer to the instrument’s identity—is almost irrelevant. Instead, the ongoing process of understanding the functions of the device, or recovering scattered clues to the maker, builds both scientific and historical literacy. That ‘open conclusion’ is clearly one of the most valuable features of the general intellectual project represented in the volume. The descriptions of how to incorporate historical narrative in the classroom, however, vary quite widely in how they treat this quality. In some projects, the intention of the historical background is coloration and inspiration, bringing the human dimensions of scientific practice alive through biography and historical context. Evidently, as in the model cases here, this can be done expertly indeed, but it remains a deceptively difficult technique. Here the theoretical reflections on the turn to the ‘science story’ in science pedagogy by Cathrine Froese Klassen seem significant. If the formal definition of the ‘science story’ promotes the idea of denouement as closure, it seems to me we risk losing more than we have gained in bringing history into the classroom. We are back on the path that leads to the tidy old stories, or to tired-sounding rebuttals of C. P. Snow’s description of the sciences and humanities as two cultures with no common ground. Yet in other work described here, including history is a jumping-off point for truly open-ended inquiry and productions. A case in point here is Claus Michelsen’s chapter describing his students’ explorations of the connections between poet and author Hans Christian Andersen and natural philosopher Hans Christian Oersted in the Danish Golden Age. The example from this project that stood out to me was the student video that captured a re-enactment of an image in Oersted’s poetry. These are best described as ‘hors catégorie’ rather than interdisciplinary, but they embody what is at stake in promoting different ways to teach science. Michelsen’s chapter is also valuable in outlining the pedagogical philosophies at the heart of the collaboration he describes, both in historical terms and in present-day. The intersection of historians, curators, scientists and science educators can be a fruitful one. This volume suggests not only the extent to which the conversation has already begun, but also the need to go beyond simply celebrating the fact that diverse groups of scholars and educators are now actively engaged with each other’s worlds. Sharing some guidelines of best practices would go a long way, and the goal is what we might call functional literacy as opposed to mastery of a different set of disciplinary practices. For historians of science, this might mean needing to know something more about how to collect and preserve, or simply what a good material record looks like. (Several of the contributions from museum professionals in the third section of this volume begin to provide these guidelines, but in a manner that requires considerable excavation.) Similarly, as the late historian of science John Pickstone has argued, scientists and others involved in public science communication could be held to more critical standards of historical evidence and argument.1 In the early twenty-first century, there are many forces at work reshaping our ‘formal and informal learning environments’ ranging from financial challenges, new digital environments, and the politics of educational reform. Many of these forces are bringing museums and universities closer together. To focus on developments that embody intellectual energy and spirit, as a reader can do in this wide-ranging volume, will be a welcome opportunity for many.
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DOI 10.1007/s11191-014-9729-3
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