Incorporating Primary Source Material in
Secondary and College Science Curricula

by Barbara J. Becker

In K. Hills (Ed.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching vol. 1 (1992), pp. 69-76.

  Comparing the world systems of Ptolemy and Copernicus, from The Ash Wednesday Supper (1584) by Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)


Introductory-level science courses are often enriched by having students recreate historically-based laboratory exercises.  It is hoped that by encountering natural phenomena first-hand, students will gain a deeper understanding of key scientific concepts.  However, these packaged exercises contain discernable cues which alert student investigators to the expected or preferred outcome, enabling them to anticipate and record teacher-satisfying observations while at the same time maintaining personal preconceptions concerning the particular phenomenon under investigation which may be in direct conflict with current scientific views.

This paper suggests that analysis and discussion of selected writings of individuals throughout history who have attempted to describe or explain the workings of the natural world -- when used as a complement to lecture, discussion, and laboratory activities -- can encourage and facilitate students' transition from a naive and possibly erroneous interpretive framework to one which is more consistent with modern views.

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In recent years, educational researchers have drawn attention to the fact that students, even in the primary grades, enter the classroom with intellectual baggage that prevents them from absorbing new information in anything more than a superficial and imitative way (Champagne, et al., 1985; Doran, 1972; Driver, 1981; Driver, et al., 1985; Hills, 1989; Mali & Howe, 1979; Novick & Nussbaum, 1978; Nussbaum & Novak, 1976; Osborne & Bell, 1983; Strike & Posner, 1982; Strike & Posner, 1985).  Their pre-existing notions of how the world works are drawn from direct personal experience or authoritative secondhand sources such as parents or television and hence, are deeply ingrained (Ausubel, 1968; Driver et al., 1985; Nersessian, 1991).  Many of these ideas bear strong resemblance to views held in earlier times by sophisticated natural philosophers (Caramazza, et al., 1980; Champagne, et al., 1980; Clement, 1982; Helm, 1980; McCloskey, 1983; Nersessian, 1991).

Science instruction introduces students to currently received interpretations of natural phenomena which often conflict with their previous notions (Anderson & Roth, 1989; Driver, et al., 1985; Watts, 1983).  That these notions are not necessarily replaced or even refined following years of classroom science instruction is evidenced in college undergraduates' difficulty in explaining the cause of seasonal variations or correctly predicting the path of a moving object in a simple mechanical scenario (Dreyfus & Junwirth, 1980; Hewson, 1981; McCloskey, 1983; Smolicz & Nunan, 1975).  I have had a college senior express astonishment on learning that the moon is occasionally visible during the day.  "If that's the case," he argued with the zeal of one who has all of nature on his side, "how can we know when it's night time?"

The tenacity of these preconceptions makes it difficult, over the short term, for students to recite with understanding information supplied by the teacher (Ausubel, 1968).  Over the long term -- that is, after the test -- students are likely to revert to their old preconceptions.  For science classes, this means that to teach -- to successfully cause one's students to know -- requires instigating an individual scientific revolution in the mind of each child.

This is a tall order.  Even the task of first uncovering these preconceptions presents educators with an array of challenges.  The question of how individuals substitute erroneous or naive notions of the world and how it works with more successful interpretations is an even more perplexing problem.  I would argue that guidelines for such efforts can be found through analysis of historical episodes in which new conceptions of the natural world were gradually incorporated into the accepted rubric of the scientific community and then filtered down in a variety of guises to help shape the popular worldview.

In this paper, I will describe an approach to teaching science based on the incorporation of primary source materials into routine science instruction which I believe will not only facilitate the process of identifying student preconceptions, but also provide students with a model for conducting individual inquiry in such a way that they can structure a new self-supporting conceptual framework in which they will feel comfortable to maneuver physically, mentally and socially.

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Since 1980, I have taught undergraduate introductory astronomy and physics.  One of the courses I have taught most often, and therefore have had most opportunity to refine, is entitled "Light and Color," a course offered by the physics department at Towson State University specifically to meet the needs of those humanities majors coerced by college graduation requirements to take some physical science and who frequently consider themselves to be lacking in natural science ability.

Over time, I developed hands-on lab experiences and homework problems to help reacquaint students with the elementary math they would need in order to master the ins and outs of simple geometrical optics.  But I gradually recognized that non-science students have an intellectual need for a completely new approach to learning science which is able to take advantage of their natural interest in puzzles, serendipity, creativity, art, humor, conflict, history, and philosophy.

I began to search for some new way to present the basic information about the physical behavior of light in place of the litany of phenomenological description which had served as the foundation of the old syllabus.  To that end, I organized my course around the centuries-long debate between exponents of the corpuscular model for visible light and those individuals who viewed it as a disturbance in the luminiferous ether.  A careful study of the various observational and philosophical questions that fueled this vigorous argument would, I reasoned, expose students to a dynamic side of scientific research that is often obscured from public view by the advantages of hindsight.

An important element in my efforts to enrich introductory-level science courses has been providing students with the opportunity to recreate historically-based laboratory exercises.  Granted, this is not particularly innovative.  Many routine lab exercises are designed in this way.  In fact, the labs I developed for my own students were principally variations on those I had performed myself as a student.  Like many other instructors adopting this approach, I hoped that by encountering the phenomenon in question first-hand, students, even those who may not consider themselves scientifically inclined, would gain a deeper understanding of key scientific concepts.

In many ways, this approach had a positive effect:  students expressed enthusiasm about the active engagement afforded by opportunities for individual observation and students -- even those professing low scientific ability -- found it easier to visualize physical phenomena as mathematical abstractions.  In general, the ability to verbalize the key science concepts being introduced improved as students had more concrete and tangible experiences to which they were able to refer.

From my perspective as an instructor, I found the approach to be satisfying in that it increased participation in class discussion, facilitated routine classroom management and streamlined the presentation of new scientific ideas to students.  I could coordinate class lectures, discussion and lab exercises to reinforce the basic physical principles governing the behavior of light.

But, in walking around the room during the lab exercises and interacting with students while they were engaged in their observational and mensurational activities, I found that in a very deep way, this approach could be both intimidating and stultifying.  The neatness of a packaged experimental design accompanied by the lab manual's condensed expressions of confidence in the anticipated outcome convey the unmistakable message that investigators of natural processes always know what they are doing and why -- a feeling foreign to the experience of many of these introductory-level students.  The challenge of original inquiry is masked by what appear to be ready solutions and obvious answers.

When confronted with anomalous results, students were prone to record only those things which seemed to fit expectations, or assume their own ineptitude and defer to someone else's observation which seemed more "correct."  Students would often ask, "What are you looking for?", "What are we supposed to be seeing?", "Is this right?"  I began to search for a way to rectify this problem.

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In the summer of 1990, I had the opportunity to teach a special course on the history of science to a group of twelve gifted high school students at the Center for Talented Youth site at the Collège du Léman near Geneva, Switzerland.  The Center for Talented Youth is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland and provides both year-round and special summer programs for those academically talented students who have demonstrated exceptional ability in CTY's annual Talent Search.

I was given free rein in designing the course and so I opted to try something quite new with the old light and color course:  namely, base it on the analysis of primary source material, complemented by lecture, discussion and lab activities.  This required locating relevant sources, editing and transcribing selected excerpts, as well as converting them into a format which could be collected into booklet form for easy classroom use and reference.  This proved to be a challenging, but invigorating task.  Light has always been considered such an elusive and tantalizing puzzle that many influential thinkers committed their opinions concerning its nature to paper leaving a rich legacy of materials from which to choose.

The resulting booklet, entitled Understanding the Nature of Light was used in lieu of a more traditional introductory optics textbook.  In making the selections which were ultimately included in the booklet, I considered their potential not only for stimulating classroom discussion, but for establishing a mindset in the students which would nurture rather than inhibit their natural inclinations to think critically about such things as instrument design, individual observational interpretation, and the problem of persuasion following an innovative observation or discovery.  These fundamental features of laboratory work are, in most cases, a lengthy struggle for original investigators, and emblematic of the difficulties faced when new ways of examining natural phenomena are being suggested.  But a number of normative factors routinely work to reduce the complexity of the original investigative process.  Doubts and dead-ends vanish as the original experimenter's exploratory methods and instrumentation are encapsulated into hour-long exercises or table-top replications.  I wished to reinstate some sense of that struggle into the students' experience.

I had the luxury of 75 contact hours over a three week session.  I was also able to focus on one narrow aspect of physical science.  Thus, I was able to include a wider range of materials than might be possible in a course which must survey the whole of a discipline.

Beginning with the Greeks, I included writings from Pre-Socratics like Xenophanes, Empedocles and Democritus on the one hand, and Hellenistic writers like Euclid, Lucretius, Hero and Ptolemy on the other, as well as more traditional excerpts from Aristotle and Plato.  In this way, I was able to introduce the students to varieties of investigation, demonstration and persuasion.  Discussions focussed on the advantages and disadvantages of inductive and deductive methods of rationalizing natural phenomena, the role of mathematical abstraction, and the inherent difficulties of communicating one's individual insight to others.

Often historical introductions in science texts make the mistake of skipping over the Middle Ages.  By going directly from the Greeks to the Renaissance, the impression is conveyed that there was little interest in the natural world in the interim.  But, this robs students of a rich intellectual opportunity.  The diversity of opinion expressed by both European and Arab scholars during this period, the intensity of their drive to understand phenomena they had directly witnessed or of which they had heard, the struggle they faced to find ways of expressing their interpretations of these phenomena in terms that could be understood by their contemporaries provides students with some insight into the opacity which veils the richness of this dark age from modern eyes.

For some reason, this period proved to be one of the more intriguing to my students, a surprising fact which I believe warrants further investigation.  Perhaps the medieval world view is one with which students feel comfortable -- the scale of it is manageable and the limitations in self-expression are common to their own experience.  The comfort of looking to familiar authority for guidance coupled with a growing interest in challenging that authority is also something with which students can identify.

The readings from the Middle Ages stimulated some students to ask why anyone would bother to study the ideas of individuals who turned out to be "wrong."  This difficult philosophical question stimulated vigorous debate pitting realists against relativists -- a debate which continued in one form or another during the rest of the course, and from which the students developed an appreciation of the complexity of the scientific enterprise.  This sort of question is less likely to occur to students exposed to a more traditional program of instruction which only introduces those ideas which seem in some way ancestral to modern views.

Every course on optics describes Newton's prismatic analysis of sunlight.  His now classic crucial experiment from which he argued that white light was a blend of all colors, is often used today as either a demonstration or a lab exercise.  Seldom are alternative interpretations or contemporaneous criticisms of Newton's interpretation presented.  The heroic place which Newton has come to occupy in the litany of scientific achievements is nearly unshakable.

Because of this, I believed it was important to cull from various sources the questions and arguments raised by Newton's contemporaries following the published announcement of his experiment in the Philosophical Transactions.  I wished to expose students to the issue of dissent and controversy during the infancy of the modern scientific community.  I found that these readings raised a number of important methodological issues surrounding the use of experiment as a persuasive rhetorical device, the standardization of instrumentation, the institutionalization of scientific discourse, and the struggle to achieve consensus.

When the students themselves turned to replicate Newton's experiment, they were freer to acknowledge difficulties in seeing things as Newton saw them, or to feel constrained by suggestions in the lab sheet.  They were encouraged to come up with their own interpretations and to articulate their own observations with confidence.  And, they were better able to see discordant results as possible footholds into creative activity.

Exposure to the controversy sparked by Newton's views on light prepared the students for more avid discussion of the wave-particle debate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Twentieth century views on the nature of light were captured in excerpts taken from the writings of Albert Michelson, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman.

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There are a number of disadvantages to this approach.  In the first place, the practical obstacles of locating, transcribing and duplicating materials must be overcome.  The task of coordinating the reading with relevant classroom lectures, discussions and laboratory exercises is very time consuming.  The effort to read and understand the various excerpts may be overwhelming and ultimately discouraging for the average teacher.  Such difficulties could be resolved by large-scale curriculum development to provide the classroom teacher with supportive materials and suggestions for their use.

Second, these documents can be extremely difficult for students to read -- the language and style is sometimes impenetrable.  The concepts are couched in metaphors or worldviews which are so foreign to the experience of these young individuals that much time and energy is required by the instructor to translate the document into modern terms.  In some cases such a translation is nearly impossible as the entire social and cultural context is too opaque for modern readers.  Certainly, not all primary sources are appropriate for all age levels.  The support material supplied to teachers must include guidelines for leading discussion of the documents that are assigned their students.

Finally, another obstacle to incorporating this approach in the curriculum is the administrative perception, often bolstered by parental concerns, that such material is simply not relevant to students' acquisition of basic scientific knowledge.  The pressure on administrators to assure system-wide success on standardized tests leaves little classtime to devote to what may be considered as "historical sidelines" or "peripheral information."  But exclusive emphasis on objective problem solving ignores the long-term value of permitting students to grapple with the deeper issues raised by past interpretations of natural phenomena.  Students often do not have any idea why they are doing what they are doing -- except that their behavior conforms to teacher expectations and that completion of a given project is necessary to acquire a grade and pass the course.  Science becomes less of a creative enterprise and more of a replicative one.  With the introduction of primary source materials, problem solving could be made less stressful as it became less memory-based and more internalized.

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I do not advocate the use of primary sources as the sole, or even the principal method of instruction.  The complexity of human cognitive processes argues for employing a variety of methods to engage both students and teachers on a multitude of cognitive levels.  Stimulating a broad range of sensory responses is apt to insure that the science instruction time will be both positive and challenging.  Exposing students to past individuals' original thoughts about natural phenomena is one more way to broaden teachers' methodological options.

The insertion of units based on a set of excerpts from primary sources selected either to introduce a new unit or to reinforce a concept recently covered can have the advantage of presenting the students with a diversion from the usual classroom format as well as forcing them to confront their own existing patterns of belief in comparison with modern views.  I found that by reading excerpts -- some quite brief, others more lengthy -- gleaned from the writings of individuals throughout history, my students were freed to think more critically about the nature and behavior of light and to better appreciate the intellectual struggle the problem this phenomenon presented individuals in the past.

Other physical phenomena could be introduced to students in a similar fashion:  electricity and magnetism, classical mechanics, modern physics, and astronomy to name a few.  Also, by acting as a catalyst for questions and debate, the incorporation of primary source material in the curriculum is uniquely suitable to broader programs of classroom management reform which emphasize group learning and peer instruction.

It is absolutely essential to measure the effect of this approach on both the students' short-term learning and their long-term ability to understand and explain basic scientific concepts.  Comparisons need to be made with students taught similar material in a more traditional way to confirm or refute subjective claims about the effectiveness of such an approach.  The results of such a study could have a revolutionary impact on the teaching of science to non-science students in high school as well as undergraduate classrooms.


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