MindWorks:  Making Scientific Concepts Come Alive

by Barbara J. Becker

In Science & Education (2000) 9, pp. 269-278.  Reprinted, in J. J. Hirschbuhl and D. Bishop (Eds.), Computers in Education (2002/2003), 10th ed., McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, Guilford, CT, pp. 129-133.


  Teacher developer Myra Philpott's students at Buena Park High School build a Ferris Wheel as part of MindWorks' "Statics and Structures" unit.


The Southwest Regional Laboratory, through major funding from the National Science Foundation (ESI-9450235), has developed a series of eight instructional modules for use in common secondary school physical science that address three central goals of U.S. 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 pilot implementation and project evaluation.

*  *  *


Acquainting young people today with contemporary scientific understanding of structure and process in the natural world is a daunting task--there is so much that can be taught, and really so very little time.  Educators are faced with critical choices in terms of the content they present and the method by which they present it in order to maximize their opportunities to influence, in a positive way, the world views being built by their students.

For kids, learning about the world is a 24 hour a day operation--it's what they do for a living.  And formal instruction in science--the way science educators like to think that students acquire their knowledge of the world--is only a few hours a week, at best.  That's not really a problem for kids.  They are able to locate the bricks and mortar with which to construct their own nearly indestructible views on how the world works from a wide range of readily available sources:  parents, friends, the media, in addition to personal observation and experiment.  By early adolescence, most students have a pretty good idea what scientists are like, what they do, and why it is that they believe the things they do.

This is not to say that we are privy to our students' private beliefs about the structure and function of the natural world.  For one thing, students are adept at learning to say what they know we want to hear.  For another, we have a hard time learning to palpate productively for signs of cognitive dissonance.  Patterns which order our thought space have become so familiar that we forget they are constructs of the human intellect deemed convenient, efficient, and useful for organizing the information we gather daily.  We have become desensitized to our own deeply ingrained systems of belief. 

How can we learn to confront the boundaries that delimit the realm of our personal and professional thought space?  How can we learn to ask our own questions within a new and unfamiliar context?  How can we then help students recognize the existence of alternatives to their private beliefs about the world and give them useful means by which to examine them?

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 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.


In the United States, the call to make its 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.

The new National Science Education Standards have been developed to both guide and assess this improvement process.  Integral to these new standards--and the numerous curriculum frameworks that have been developed in recent years (e.g., Biological Science Curriculum Study & Social Science Education Consortium, 1992; California Department of Education, 1990; Hickman, et al., 1987)--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.

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.


It has been 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.

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.

While some may 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.  Indeed, 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 are endeavoring 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.


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 video series was named "MindWorks."

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.  It was particularly helpful to project staff to have had the opportunity to gather input from members of the Advisory Board in November 1994, when script development was still in its early stages.  Advisors have included such notable advocates of the use of history in science teaching as Leo Klopfer from the University of Pittsburgh, Jim Wandersee from Louisiana State University, Jim Ellis and Don Maxwell from Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, and Rick Duschl from Vanderbilt University.

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, was not completed until mid-September.  However, participating teachers and SWRL staff were able to plan the units around the roughcut of each video during the written materials development workshop held at SWRL in July and August 1995. 


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.  Though the videos form the centerpiece for each module, the teachers are 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 (SWRL, 1996).  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.

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.

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.

During the 1995/96 academic year, each module underwent a careful and thorough field-testing process.  Teachers who developed the modules piloted their own designs to fine tune the teacher and student materials.  Formative evaluation of the freshly revised materials was conducted by a team from Rockman, et al. in classrooms in the San Francisco Bay area.  The classrooms used represented socio-economically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse student populations.

This small-scale pilot demonstrated that embedding science learning in a historical context successfully conveys the creative and very human character of scientific explanation--its tentative, probabilistic, and serendipitous nature.  By integrating well-chosen historic episodes into traditional content-centered science units, the MindWorks modules have helped teachers establish a classroom atmosphere that stimulates productive discussion and nurtures students' critical thinking about the meaning of scientific activity--e.g., the design of measuring instruments, individual observational interpretation, measurement error, and the often ignored rhetorical challenge faced by scientific investigators in the aftermath of discovery.  Classroom use of MindWorks materials has thus far shown that basing science instruction on historic episodes can 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 April 1996, teachers were recruited from Los Angeles and Orange counties to participate in a large-scale field test of the MindWorks materials during the 1996/97 academic year.  Our goal was to recruit 50 teachers:  25 to receive two weeks of training prior to piloting the materials; 25 to pilot the materials without any previous training.  Over a hundred teachers responded to our announcement.  Of these, 46 have been selected to participate in the pilot.  These individuals have been randomly assigned to a pilot group:  23 participated in the training session held at SWRL July 8-18, 1996; 23 will be given copies of all MindWorks materials.  A group of 50 introductory physical science teachers is being recruited from Los Angeles and Orange counties to serve as controls in the study. 

Four of the original seven teachers/developers assisted project staff during the training session.  Each day of the eight-day training was devoted to one unit.  Included in each day's activities were discussions of rationale for the selection and development of the unit's structure and content, historical background, basic science content, and pedagogy.  Teachers were assigned to small groups.  To increase social cohesion in the training group as a whole, teachers were reassigned to new groups every two days.

Care was taken in the selection of training activities.  Time was extremely limited, so activities were chosen that best model active group collaboration, creative design and problem solving, and use of the unit's historical materials.  The principal aims of the training were to motivate and engage the teachers, build up confidence in their personal ability to implement the materials, generate a bond of support with each other and SWRL staff, and provide guidance for planning their overall instructional program during the upcoming year.

It was anticipated that time and, perhaps considerable, energy would be spent during the training defending the expenditure of precious science instruction time on what could be construed as extraneous topics.  This did not turn out to be the case.  The teachers quickly and eagerly bought into the rationale behind the development of the MindWorks materials.  One teacher commented, while constructing her telegraph, that while electricity and magnetism did not seem to agree with her, she was encouraged to master it because she wanted to be able to teach her students about all the "railroad stuff" in the historical materials.

The 1996/97 piloting effort will be closely monitored throughout the school year by the summative evaluation team and project staff.  Students will be assessed on their basic science achievement, knowledge of the scientific enterprise, and attitudes toward science.

To measure science achievement, a pre- and post-assessment instrument is being developed for administration to students of teachers in all three study groups.  The instrument is being designed by Michael Martinez from the University of California, Irvine, and will assess students' basic understanding of science content and process, as well as probe for fundamental misconceptions. 

To measure students' knowledge of the scientific enterprise, they will be assigned a few select open-ended tasks near the end of the school year.  These tasks will assess students' ability to analyze and interpret evidence, their appreciation of the creative role of argument and uncertainty in the development of scientific thinking, and their personal views of scientists and the methods of scientific investigation.

Students from all study groups will be surveyed concerning their attitudes about science both at the beginning of the school year and at the end.  Assuming an average class size of 30 students, we will have gathered information on approximately 3,000 students by the conclusion of the 1996/97 academic year. 

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


Ahlgren, A., & Walberg, H. J.:  1973, "Changing attitudes toward science among adolescents", Nature  245, 187-190.

American Association for the Advancement of Science:  1990, Science for All Americans,  Oxford University Press, New York.

Becker, B. J., Younger-Flores, K., and Wandersee, J. H.  (1995).  MindWorks:  Making scientific concepts come alive.  In F. Finley, D. Allchin, D. Rhees, and S. Fifield (Eds.), Proceedings of the Third International History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching (vol. 1, pp. 115-125).  Minneapolis, Minnesota:  The University of Minnesota.

Becker, B. J.  (1992).  Incorporating primary source material in secondary and college science curricula.  In K. Hills (Ed.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching(vol. 1, pp. 69-76).  Kingston, Ontario:  The Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Teacher Education Group.

Biological Science Curriculum Study & Social Science Education Consortium.  (1992).  Teaching about the history and nature of science and technology:  A curriculum framework.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Author.

California Department of Education.  (1990).  Science framework for California public schools:  Kindergarten through grade twelve.  Sacramento:  Author.

Clement, J.:  1983, "A Conceptual Model Discussed by Galileo and Used Intuitively by Physics Students", in D. Gentner & A. Stevens (Eds.), Mental Models, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 325-40.

Driver, R. & Easley, J.:  1978, "Pupils and paradigms:  A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students", Studies in Science Education 5, 61-84.

Gagné, Robert:  1977, The Conditions of Learning,Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York.

Hickman, F. M., Patrick, J. J., & Bybee, R. W.  (1987).  Science/technology/society:  A framework for curriculum reform in secondary school science and social studies.  Boulder, CO:  Social Science Education Consortium.

Holton, G.:  1978, "On the educational philosophy of the Project Physics Course," in G. Holton (ed.), The Scientific Imagination:  Case Studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Klopfer, L. E., & Cooley, W. W.: 1963, "The History of Science Cases for High Schools in the development of student understanding of science and scientists", Journal of Research in Science Teaching 1, 33-47.

Klopfer, L. E., & Cooley, W. W.:1961, The Use of Case Histories in the Development of Student Understanding of Science and Scientists, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Klopfer, L. E.:  1969, "The Teaching of Science and the History of Science," Journal of Research in Science Teaching 6, 87-95.

Krashen, Stephen:  1982, Principles and  Practice in Second Language Acquisition,Pergamon, Oxford.

Matthews, M. R.:  1992, "History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching:  The Present Rapprochement", Science & Education 1 (1), 11-47.

McAleese, R. (ed.):  1978, Perspectives on Academic Gaming and Simulation 3:  Training and Professional Education, Kogan Page, London.

McCloskey, M.:  1983, "Intuitive physics", Scientific American 248, 122-130.

National Research Council.  (1996).  National Science Education Standards.  Washington, D.C.:  National Academy Press.

Russell, A., & Curtin, T. R.:  1993, Study of School Uses of Television and Video:  1990-1991 School Year, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington, D. C.

Schank, R., & Abelson, R.:  1977, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey.

Southwest Regional Laboratory (1996).  MindWorks.  Los Alamitos, CA:  Author.

Strike, K. A., and Posner, G. J.:  1992, "A Revisionist Theory of Conceptual Change", in R. A. Duschl and R. H. Hamilton (eds.), Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Educational Theory and Practice, SUNY Press, Albany, 147-176.

Wandersee, J. H.:  1992, "The Historicality of Cognition: Implications for Science Education Research", Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29 (4), 423-434.

Wandersee, James H., Mintzes, Joel J., and Novak, Joseph D.:  1994, "Research on Alternative Conceptions in Science", in Dorothy Gabel (ed.), Handbook of Research on Science Teaching and Learning, Macmillan, New York, 177-210.

Welch, W. W.:  1973, "Review of the Research and Evaluation Program of Harvard Project Physics", Journal of Research in Science Teaching 10 (4), 365-378.

White, Richard T.:  1995, "Thoughts for Ph.D. Research," Subject Matter and Conceptual Change Newsletter 23, 5.