MindWorks:  Making Scientific Concepts Come Alive

by Barbara J. Becker

Kathryn Younger-Flores

James H. Wandersee

In F. Finley, et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Third International History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching  vol. 1, pp. 115-125.


  "The World's Columbian Exposition—The Great Ferris Wheel, 250 Feet in Diameter, 36 Cars, 40 Seats per Car," from the cover of Scientific American, July 1, 1893.


The Southwest Regional Laboratory, through major funding from the National Science Foundation (ESI-9450235), is currently developing a series of eight instructional modules for use in common secondary school physical science that address three central goals of science literacy education:  1) to motivate students who have previously shown little interest in science; 2) to accomplish deep change in students' internalized conceptions of the structure and workings of the physical world; and 3) to build greater understanding, in both teachers and students, of the process and culture of scientific activity.

Beginning with a discussion of the conceptual scaffolding that undergirds the project's pedagogical approach, the paper presents an overview of MindWorks' goals, the materials that have been developed to achieve these goals, and the progress of the first pilot implementation.  In addition, prototype materials for one module will be presented. 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.

*   *   *


It has been nearly 30 years since the last large-scale efforts to produce and use a systematic sequence of history-based science lesson plans and units.  The Project Physics Course -- the most renowned of these curricula -- aimed to meet the diverse needs and interests of those students identified as traditionally alienated from the world of science and technology.  Its developers hoped to increase enrollment in high school physics (Holton, 1978).  In many ways, they succeeded.  Students who took the course found it satisfying, diverse, historical, philosophical, humanitarian, and social.  They not only felt they had developed a good understanding of basic physics concepts, but they found the historical approach to be interesting and the text enjoyable to read as well (Welch, 1973; Ahlgren & Walberg, 1973).

Unfortunately, Project Physics missed much of its intended audience.  The students exposed to it were predominantly advanced students who already planned to take physics.  If a broader cross-section of the student population is to be reached, learning modules need to be developed that incorporate history of science, not for existing physics classes, but for the general physical science course taken by most noncollege bound or nonscience-oriented students during the last years in middle/junior high school or the first years of high school.

The call to make American students first in science and mathematics by the year 2000 has shifted the national perspective on the role of secondary science education away from the post-Sputnik emphasis on the need to train a new generation of scientists and engineers toward the challenge of raising the science literacy of ALL students.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) K-12 science reform goals, as stated in Science for All Americans (1990), encourage curricula that include important historical perspectives, understandings of the designed world, and common themes like models, systems, and scale.

It has been argued that to trace the social progression of scientific/technical ideas over time during science instruction may have sound cognitive as well as affective results (Wandersee, 1992; White, 1995).  Elaboration and organization assist learners in retaining complex information (Gagné, 1977).  The use of elaboration in the form of episodes and story lines is supported in studies of language acquisition (Schank & Abelson, 1977).  Much as with content-specific knowledge, language is acquired most effectively when introduced and reiterated in a meaningful context (Krashen, 1982).  Approaching scientific inquiry in the context of history may then be an effective means of increasing scientific literacy and not just the rote memorization of facts and formulas.  We have chosen to test this by using historical video vignettes involving role playing, and by related activities derived from video vignettes.


Since the development of Project Physics, and the nearly contemporaneous History of Science Cases developed by Leopold Klopfer (Klopfer, 1969; Klopfer & Cooley, 1963, 1961), research on alternative conception has pointed to an important new focus for science education researchers -- conceptual change (Wandersee, Mintzes, & Novak, 1994).  As a result, we have improved our understanding of the mechanics of conceptual change.  We have learned that children, like scientists, can tolerate a wide range of observations that do not match their expectations, or that even directly conflict with them, without abandoning their own system of beliefs about the natural world (Clement, 1983; Driver & Easley, 1978; McCloskey, 1983).  It is important, therefore, for students to identify and verbalize their a priori beliefs about natural phenomena.

Traditional approaches -- even laboratory experiences that support textbook presentations of theories -- do not guarantee students will alter their convictions concerning how things "ought" to work.  In contrast, a history-grounded approach to presenting scientific concepts has the potential of doing precisely that.  Strike and Posner remind their readers that "what is crucial is for teachers [or here, historical characters] to function as models of rational inquirers and for them to exhibit the practices and values of inquiry in their teaching" (1992, p. 171).  They speak of initiating the young to the social nature of scientific knowledge via a mix of observation and discourse.  That is just what we have endeavored to do in this curriculum project -- with our ultimate goal being conceptual change toward important scientific/technical concepts and principles.  Exposing students to the social construction of scientific knowledge through historical episodes that emphasize the intellectual struggle involved in developing key physical science concepts will help them articulate their own theories about the world and recognize a need to change the form and structure of these theories.

We have chosen to use the history of science as a vehicle toward that end, considering the literature's (Wandersee, 1986) admonition to draw upon relevant incidents from the history of science as a heuristic device to anticipate and address alternative conceptions in science across the grade levels (cf. Wandersee, 1981, 1985, 1987).  Integral to the new national standards and the emerging state science curriculum frameworks is the principle that effective science content instruction must be deftly woven into a rich and meaningful social context.  Historical examples provide an ideal setting for accomplishing this integration of content, context, and method.  Issues of stability and change, scale and structure, and systems and interactions can readily be explored as part and parcel of the social construction of scientific knowledge, giving students and teachers a greater appreciation for the rhetorical and often opportunistic character of scientific investigation that is commonly hidden from public view.

While some claim that the history of science previously included in science instruction was quasi-history, pseudo-history, or simplified history, Matthews (1992, p. 21) advises that a simplified history of science in a science lesson that illuminates the subject matter while not caricaturing the history is certainly not heresy.  We are both comforted and encouraged by that advice!

Embedding science learning in a historical context conveys the creative and very human character of scientific explanation -- its tentative, probabilistic, and serendipitous nature.  Integrating well-chosen historic episodes into traditional content-centered science units establishes a classroom atmosphere that can engage students and teachers alike in enriched and animated discussion about our modern understanding of the natural world as well as the scientific activity that made that understanding possible -- the design of measuring instruments, observational interpretation, measurement error, and the often ignored rhetorical challenge faced by scientific investigators in the aftermath of discovery.  More importantly, historic episodes open up opportunities for students to identify their own untutored beliefs about the workings of the natural world, to examine them critically in the light of considered historical debate, and to confront these beliefs in a way that results in positive, long-lasting conceptual change.


In June 1993, the Southwest Regional Laboratory (SWRL) embarked on a project to develop science curriculum materials that would answer these needs.  After gaining the support of local school districts and teachers, institutions of higher learning, and an experienced educational television producer, SWRL submitted an ambitious proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In October 1994, the NSF awarded SWRL nearly $1.2 million to conduct the 3-year curriculum development project, "Making Scientific Concepts Come Alive".

The decision was made early on to build the project around the production of a set of eight professionally produced, 10-15 minute video dramatizations.  Previous efforts to incorporate history in science instruction relied almost exclusively on reading materials, supplemented by the relatively limited audiovisual aids available 30 years ago.  The power of videos to motivate students is widely recognized (Russell & Curtin, 1993).  Recent technological advances in video production coupled with the increased affordability of equipment to make sophisticated audiovisual materials accessible to students further supported our decision to make the videos central to our materials development project.

Historical episodes were selected both for their attention to basic physical science concepts commonly treated in introductory physical science courses and for their inherent dramatic character -- raising social, philosophical, and/or political issues that will interest adolescents.  Though the episodes deal with Western advances in science, five of the eight videos feature the scientific investigations of women, or of persons of color.  Los Angeles' public television station, KCET, was selected to produce the videos because of its proximity to SWRL; its familiarity with, and access to, resources that would strengthen the historical and artistic integrity of the product; the quality of its past work; and its expressed concern for promoting educational excellence.

Beginning in October 1994, SWRL and KCET began converting the concept outlines for each video into scripts.  Budgetary constraints limited the structure of the planned dramatizations to those that could be effectively portrayed using only two adult characters, could be filmed in local venues, and that had limited production element requirements.  Original script concepts were modified or replaced to conform to these constraints.

The script development for the eight videos took approximately six months.  During that time, feedback was gathered from historians of science, engineers, physicists, teachers and students to ensure that the episodes contained good science and good history packaged in a format that not only appealed to students, but enhanced their understanding of the process of science as well.

Feedback from a group of junior high school students who were shown a videotaped reading of a script developed for the statics unit (based on George W. Ferris' plans for construction of his famous observation wheel for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago), bolstered our assumption that students can be motivated to learn through historical vignettes.  These students -- all low socio-economic status, many with limited English proficiency, and several with learning disabilities -- were drawn into the story of George Ferris and his design for the giant wheel.  The students were interested in the steps taken by Ferris and his assistant to overcome the challenging physical constraints imposed by Ferris's vision of a 250 foot tension wheel capable of carrying over a thousand passengers.  But they were most intrigued by the need for Ferris to convince investors to fund his colossal project.  They grasped the complexity of the task Ferris had undertaken.  They followed the process by which he accomplished it.  And they appreciated the scientific and technological expertise required to make such a vision a reality.

Actual production of the eight videos took a little over a month, beginning at the end of March 1995.  The post-production phase, originally scheduled for completion in mid-June, is, as of this writing (August 1995) in its final stages with delivery of the master videos expected before the start of the upcoming academic year.  However, participating teachers and SWRL staff were able to plan a unit around the roughcut of each video during the written materials development workshop held at SWRL in July and August 1995.

The videos may go far to increase levels of student engagement, provide concrete referents to what might otherwise be ideas too abstract for secondary students, and constitute a focus for subsequent learning activities.  But a 10-minute video can provide only a limited view into the social and intellectual setting of the scientific enterprise.  It can initiate, but not resolve, the personal confrontation with conflicting ideas necessary to produce significant changes in students' conceptual understanding.

To fully accomplish higher levels of understanding, students need personal involvement in the issues and conflicts introduced by the video, and they need access to a rich body of ideas and opinions related to the issues raised for them.


A unique feature of "Making Scientific Concepts Come Alive" has been the direct input from classroom practitioners.  In order for students to benefit from any project, their teachers must be convinced of its usefulness and practicality.  Though the videos formed the centerpiece for each module, the teachers were the project's vital link to the ultimate goal of improving science literacy and increasing motivation to explore the physical sciences for students who have shown little interest in science.  Modules designed from a teacher's perspective have increased probability of becoming integral parts of the curriculum, weaving in an historical perspective and an awareness of the culture and process of scientific inquiry.

Drawing upon the experience, enthusiasm and creativity of effective teachers was the key to enhancing the existing curriculum for students who were otherwise unlikely to pursue further coursework in the physical sciences.  A team of seven expert teachers, assisted by project staff and one advisory board member devised activities and guides for each of the eight modules.  Teachers were recruited by recommendations from district supervisors and from the science education department at a nearby university.  All of the teachers had advanced degrees and had worked successfully with very diverse groups of students.  The team included veteran and relatively new teachers.  Several teachers had previous experience writing curriculum.  Others had experience in science and industry or as teachers at the community college level.  Flexibility and a willingness to try non-traditional approaches to physical science instruction were important traits.  Permission to pilot selected units was obtained at each teacher's school site.

Because of the importance of the unit planning and the intense pressure of developing original materials in a short period of time, every effort was made to support the work done by the teachers.  Project staff assembled resources for the teachers to use.  Workspace, computers and Internet connections were provided to the teachers at SWRL.  Most importantly, teachers were given a great deal of autonomy in preparing the units.

Teachers and staff worked in pairs to design the units.  Wherever possible, teachers were able to select the units they would develop and pilot.  Four units were completed during each of two, two-week time blocks.   After completing the first two-week unit, the pairs rotated to work on a new module during the second two weeks.

Templates designed by project staff for mapping unit outlines, lesson plan structure, and student activities were overhauled and vastly improved by participating teachers.  According to a format determined by mutual agreement, each unit contains plans and activities for five class meetings outlined in a weekly block plan.  Video guides were developed to ensure their effective classroom use.

A principal feature of the project's curriculum is the inclusion of original historical documents and summaries of biographic and historical information in a variety of hands-on, cooperative or competitive group and dramatic activities.  An extensive collection of historical and biographical materials was gathered in advance by SWRL staff for teachers to use in constructing curriculum units, lesson plans and student activities.  Taking the story line in the video as a point of departure, teachers developed a range of activities that include creative and reflective writing, classroom simulations, debates, and discussions that immerse the learners in the work of scientists and inventors.

Role playing is a legitimate tool for establishing key science concepts and principles in students' long-term memory (Creola, 1994; Dukes & Seidner, 1978; Ellington, Addinall, & Percival, 1981; Jones, 1985; McAleese 1978; Ments, 1983; Shaftel & Shaftel, 1982).  It is useful to differentiate between two educational approaches related to role-play -- simulations and games.  A simulation is a highly simplified version of part of a real or imaginary play-world; a game is a structured system of competitive play that incorporates the material to be learned.  Role-play asks someone to imagine that they are another person or thing in a given situation and then to behave exactly as they would in that situation.  They must experience a problem under the constraints of the situation in order that they may increase their own understanding of that situation.  This happens vicariously via the historical videos designed for this project.

Creola (1994) contends that role-play is an important link between students; constructions of the real world and the content areas in school.  Here they can ponder consequences, reconsider data, and learn from others' successes and failures.  Here, if carried out properly by the teacher, thinking, feeling, and acting can become integrated.

Great care has been taken to conform to the best practices available for including learners of varying abilities by relating activities as closely as possible to real-life situations.  Where appropriate, activities have been modified in order to maximize participation in the module activities.  In addition to the rich comprehensible input provided by the historical vignettes, the accompanying activities come with clear and concise directions for the students and teachers.  Activities follow a logical sequence of concept development and relate as closely as possible to real-life situations.

Through authentic assessment tasks, students will demonstrate mastery of real-life skills.  Students will be observed on individual and group tasks that include both quantitative and qualitative problem-solving activities.  In this way, all students are likely to experience success and challenge.

Each module is currently (academic year, 1995/96) undergoing a careful and thorough field-testing process.  Teachers who developed the modules will pilot their own designs for purposes of fine tuning the teacher and student materials.  These same teachers will then pilot other modules.  At this point, teachers who had not been involved in the writing process will be included in the pilot study.  Formative evaluation of the materials will take place in classrooms in schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties as well as in the San Francisco Bay area.  The classrooms used will represent socio-economically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse student populations.

SWRL staff will visit classrooms to observe the implementation of the modules and to assist the teachers.  In addition to the classroom visits and periodic meetings, teachers and staff will remain in contact via electronic mail.  The first group of teachers and project staff will become trainers for those teachers who will conduct the larger-scale field test during the 1996/97 academic year.

By refining our materials and methods over the next two years, a polished product should be ready for publication and dissemination at the conclusion of the project.


*To see the "Teacher Notes" with descriptions of all lessons included in the final version of MindWorks' Atoms and Matter unit, click here ——>

The role of the video dramatization in this unit is to introduce students to the phenomenon of natural radiation as it was understood at the turn of the century.  The video features a conversation that may have taken place in June 1903 between two scientists:  Marie Curie, the discoverer of that element who was visiting London at the time with her collaborator-husband Pierre, and Marie's hostess, Margaret Huggins, wife of the president of the Royal Society of London and an accomplished astronomical spectroscopist.  Their discussion of radium's puzzling properties reveals the excitement with which these women viewed the future of radium research, their optimistic speculation concerning the potential such research would have for increasing basic understanding of the structure of matter, and their individual ideas on ways radium could be examined to reveal the means by which it produces its natural radiation.  In addition, the video will provide students with a glimpse into the lives of two women who were not merely wives of scientists, or able assistants to their husbands, but scientists in their own right.  Such women faced special challenges which are only just being discussed by historians and scientists.

Many questions that today's students have about radioactivity were asked by early researchers:  what causes it; how prevalent is it; what can it do; how can its positive effects be harnessed; how can its negative effects be minimized; what can it teach us about the fundamental building blocks of nature?  This drama is intended to give voice to these questions in an open-ended way to provide teachers with the opportunity to guide their students toward an understanding of atomic structure and nuclear processes based on fact not fiction.

The video can be used to introduce or culminate a unit on the structure of matter, the physics of radioactivity, the biological and medical uses of various forms of radiation, or the chemical properties of materials.  It can also be used as a bridge between units on classical and modern physics or chemistry.  In addition, it can be used to introduce a unit on twentieth century technology and the repercussions of basic research findings on social and ethical issues.  These suggestions do not exhaust the possibilities, but are intended merely to stimulate thinking on how such a dramatization could be incorporated into existing curricular programs.  In the brief unit sketch provided below, the video is used to introduce students to early twentieth century models of atomic structure and the means by which they were derived.


Objective:  Student understanding of necessity to use indirect observations to learn about the properties of some natural phenomena.

Opener:  Students view x-ray on overhead projector:  What is this picture of?  How do you know?  Why do we use x-rays?


  1. How Do You Know? (object identification on overhead projector)
  2. Reading X-rays. (revisit opener activity)
  3. Becquerel's Accident (groups duplicate Becquerel's discovery)

Closure:  Keys to understanding structure of matter not accessible to direct human observation.  Scientists need to rely on indirect observation to gain insight into nature's building blocks.

Homework:  Write short paragraph about what you expect to see when you examine photographic film.


Objective:  Student understanding of nature of radioactivity

Opener:  Discussion of student expectations on Becquerel outcomes


  1. Examine and describe photographic plates
  2. Show and discuss video
  3. Form groups for Lesson Three research activity

Closure:  Revisit history of discovery of radiation and the underlying strucutre of matter.

Homework:  Describe your own experiences of having an x-ray taken.


Objective:  Student realization of the contributions women have made to science.

Opener:  Recall scenes from video and start thinking about effects of radiation on hunans.


  1. Women in Science Research Group Work
  2. Half of the groups report research findings to the class

Closure:  Discussion of the opportunitites womeen have taken to pursue their own scientific investigations.

Homework:  Write a letter to Marie Curie asking her for more information about her work with radium.


Objective:  Student understanding of scientists' search for patterns in understanding natural phenomena.

Opener:  Analogy of strategies used to put together jigsaw puzzles to exploration of scientific puzzles.


  1. Remaining groups report research findings to class
  2. Script reading as intro to Half-life Activity
  3. Half-life Activity (students shake pennies to see example of decay process)

Closure:  Discussion of the usefulness of a model ot investigate natural phenomena.

Homework:  Plot the data you obtained from the Half-life Activity.


Objective:  Student appreciation of the need for collaboration in scientific research.

Opener:  Students tie a bow in a piece of string with one hand behind their back.


  1. Spectroscopy Activity

Closure:  Second viewing of video and discussion.

Homework:  Assessment Activity.  Describe a way to find an answer to the question, "Are microwaves radioactive?"  Include a list of the materials needed; a hypothesis; the procedure that should be followed; a description of the means by which results will be observed; measured, recorded, and interpreted; and how these results can be checked.



June 20, 1903




There was a very large audience at the Royal Institution last night to hear Professor Pierre Curie, of the Sorbonne, Paris, lecture on radium.  Sir William Crookes was in the chair, and among those present were Mme. Curie, Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Lord Avebury, Sir Frederick Bramwell, Sir Oliver Lodge, Professor Dewar, Professor Ray Lankester, Professor Ayrton, Professor S. P. Thompson, and Professor Armstrong.

Professor Curie, who spoke in French, began with some experiments to illustrate the properties of radium.  He showed that it was capable of spontaneously and continuously disengaging heat, that it had the power of rapidly affecting photographic plates even through opaque bodies, and that it could provoke luminous phenomena in phosphorescent substances such as platinocyanide of barium, not losing its power even when cooled to the temperature of liquid air.  He next proved its ability to render air a conductor of electricity, by showing that a charged electroscope was at once discharged when a fragment of radium was brought into its vicinity, and in another experiment showed that it facilitated the passage of the electric spark.  He went on to describe the different radiations given off by the substance and to distinguish them according to their power of penetration, absorptibility, behaviour in a magnetic field, &c.  He then explained that, in addition to these radiations, radium also gave off emanations which had the same properties as the substance itself -- properties which were included in the term radioactivity.  The salts of radium in solution gave off this radioactivity, and were able to render other objects of all sorts radioactive.  In this emanation, for example, a charged electroscope was discharged, and a phosphorescent substance became luminous.  The emanation behaved in many ways like a gas.  It could be aspirated through a tube, it could be condensed by liquid air, and after being frozen out of a vessel would diffuse throughout it again when the temperature was allowed to rise.  These phenomena were illustrated by a very pretty experiment, in which a vessel containing a weak solution of radium chloride was connected by a tube to another vessel containing some sulphide of zinc.  So long as the stopcock on the tube connecting the two vessels was closed the sulphide of zinc did not phosphoresce, but as soon as it was opened the luminous effect appeared.  Returning to the heat disengaged by radium, the lecturer proved the reality of the phenomenon by the aid of what he said was in fact a liquid air calorimeter.  A small piece of glass was lowered into a carefully isolated vacuum-flask containing liquid air, and the amount of gas that boiled off in a given time was measured.  The experiment was then repeated, but instead of the plain piece of glass a small vessel, identical in size, containing radium was substituted, with the result that in the same time the quantity of gas given off was seen to be more than doubled.  Professor Curie concluded with a slight reference to some other properties of radium, its chemical effects, its place in the periodic table of the elements, its power of producing sores on the skin and even of inducing paralysis, and the character of its spectrum.  He also gave a brief account of the studies which led Mme. Curie and himself to the recognition of it and other radioactive bodies, and touched on the speculations suggested by the phenomena it presented as to the evolution of matter and the gradual transformation of the elements.



July 20, 1903




A paper bearing in a remarkable way on the connexion between these two elements, which is now exciting so much interest, has been received for publication by the Royal Society from Sir W. and Lady Huggins.  Prompted, in fact, by theoretical ideas, they attacked the problem of the spectroscopic analysis of the light emitted directly by a radium salt at ordinary temperatures.  Preliminary visual observation seemed to show traces of bright lines in a continuous spectrum.  Preparations were accordingly made for photographic record by means of a small quartz spectroscope constructed some years ago for use on very faint celestial objects.  After several trials, a spectrum, consisting of eight definite bright lines in the ultra-violet, entirely different from the spark spectrum of radium, and some faint lines together with a very faint continuous spectrum, was obtained by 72 hours' exposure to the glow.  The lines were of some breadth, on account of the wide slit that had to be employed in order to admit sufficient light; but it was found possible to measure their wave lengths within an error of 2 in the fourth figure.  On a comparson [sic] of this spectrum, so different in type from an ordinary phosphorescent spectrum, with the recorded measurements for helium, it appeared at once that four, and perhaps five, of the eight lines agreed with lines of helium within the uncertainty of the measurements.  Another line, that of highest refrangibility, agrees with a line in the spark spectrum of radium itself, which, however, has not been recorded by other observers; the two other lines, the lowest, have not yet been traced.

It will be remembered that last year Professor Rutherford produced striking evidence for the view that, in the very slow break-up of radium that is concomitant with its radio-activity, the inert gas helium is one of the products formed.  Recently Sir W. Ramsay and Mr. F. Soddy have succeeded in detecting helium by the spectroscope in the gases extracted from a radium salt.  If, as the present observations indicate, the radium salt shines spontaneously in the dark largely by light belonging to the different element helium, another important step is gained in elucidating the nature of the instability of such chemical elements of high atomic weight and the radio-activity associated with it.


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