Experimentum Crucis: A Symposium Course


This January, for seven days, I taught a seven day course with a friend and fellow teacher. Our school eliminated midterms and instead instituted different programs for different grades. Juniors and seniors were given the opportunity to sign up for full-day courses designed and taught by faculty on topics of interest. Faculty were given the opportunity to design courses which got kids to think about topics in a different way.

My co-teacher and I developed a course that was designed to be interdisciplinary (we were working at the intersections of history, science, and philosophy), hands-on (students would be working in the laboratory), and rigorous (meaning kids would be expected to think and work at a high level).

Designing and teaching this class was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher. And I don’t know — honestly, I don’t know — if we were successful or not. Even with the feedback we received. Thus even though it was challenging, I’m not sure I felt it was rewarding. In fact, the reason I’m writing this blogpost now, months after this, is because I was so exhausted with the whole thing I couldn’t bring myself to even think about it in a reflective or objective way.

The origins of the class go back to the previous year, when my co-teacher and I started trying to envision precisely what the big picture ideas were, and how we were going to get kids to go from point A to point B in their thinking. This also was coupled with the question: how the heck do you design seven days with the same group of kids, from 8:3o to 3:15. Seriously put yourself into our shoes for a second. Initially, it’s pretty exciting! All this time! Do what you want! But then you realize: you are going to have 12 to 16 kids in your charge, and you need to fill up that time with multiple activities! Quickly this went from exciting to daunting and anxiety-filling. For months, the co-teacher and I would have meetings, read books and articles, come up with ideas, refine our ideas, and throw out our ideas. Coming up with a lesson plan for a single day took weeks of work. The agony, the hours, the frustration… I don’t wish that upon my worst enemy. But we finished.

Our course abstract:

Can you imagine building a battery without the concept of electrons?  What would it be like to describe chemical reactions without discussing atoms?  Would you believe Einstein’s theory of relativity if no text book told you to and there were no way to test it?

In this course, you will have the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of scientists who (in retrospect) revolutionized the way people viewed and understood the natural world.  By carrying out famous historic experiments, you will explore the process of creating “scientific models” and “scientific facts,” many of which we now take for granted as self evident. This course will be hands-on and interdisciplinary. In addition to lab work, we will read primary and secondary sources that will allow you to place science in historical context and understand scientific knowledge making as a process and a product of its time.

Our course objectives:

Through this course, students will explore:

  • science in historical context
  • how science is influenced by and a product of its time
  • that the process of science involves models changing over time
  • that what we take for granted is often messy, weird and sometimes illogical
  • that science is a human endeavor
  • that the making of science is a process
  • how scientific “facts” get accepted/discarded –  that ideas are nothing without the acceptance of many people

and ask the big questions:

  • What is an experiment?
  • What is a scientific fact?

Anchor Texts:

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Original papers by Robert Boyle and Alessandro Volta
Secondary texts


Originally, we planned to have a number of experiments: Proust, Boyle, Volta, Oersted, Einstein. However because we had a snowday (there went Einstein and the discussion of thought experiments), and because some of the experimentation took much longer than expected, we had to eliminate more (Proust and Oersted). Thus, we only ended up working extensively on Boyle and Volta.


One day was spent on a field trip to the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, but the rest of the days were spent having deep class discussions and carrying out two in-depth experiments in the labs. We did Boyle’s Law experiment, and they had to bend glass to make their own J-tube, and play carefully with mercury. (We inducted all our kids into the Royal Society, after reading bits of the original charter, and administering the oath that the initial founders took.) Our kids saw that our modern instantiation of Boyle’s Law (PV=k) was nothing like the original formulation (they only were given Boyle’s original paper to guide their research and help them figure out how to reproduce the original experiment), and they started to get at the idea that Boyle was looking at his experiment through a totally different lens (“the springiness of air”). My favorite part was when kids saw how their little sidebar about Boyle in their chemistry textbooks was just a black box for so much! And how it wasn’t just “one crucial experiment” that suddenly worked and changed our understanding. Mwahaha, the title of our course is precisely the thing we aimed to get our kids to debunk. 

Our second experiment was building (well, improving upon) the first voltaic pile. Again they only had Volta’s original paper to work from, they were given many materials that Volta mentioned in his paper to play around with and test (e.g. lye, silver, zinc, tin, coins, leather, cardboard, salt water, etc.), and they were working to win le Prix Volta (a real prize Napoleon and the French Academy of Science offered for research in electricity, after Napoleon saw Volta’s original battery demonstrated). This contest was good to talk about collaboration and competition in science, but my favorite part was having kids read a challenging history of science article about what actually was behind the creation of the battery (a torpedo fish!) and what sorts of things had to have happen for there to be the physical and intellectual space for Volta to even have the conditions for him to come up with his Voltaic Pile. That the battery is historically situated, and tools, ideas, and people had to come together in a specific way for the battery to emerge and look the way it did. I also really liked that students could understand that there could be an explanation of electricity that didn’t center around electrons.

That dovetailed really nicely into how we were talking about Thomas Kuhn. We used Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions as our core text that they were reading extensive bits here and there each night, and although I was worried it would be too abstract for them, they grappled with it and came out victors. And I think (hope) it was a real mind-blowing experience when they realized that “old” theories weren’t “bad” because those scientific practitioners who adhered to them were dumb (or at least, weren’t smart enough to see the Truth with a capital T). And listening to them discuss Kuhn, grapple with the idea of Normal Science, and start to see glimpses that (1) science isn’t accumulative in the simplistic way that textbooks tend to say it is, and that (2) we always are looking at data, theories, experiments, observations through specific eyes, and what we see is dictated by the paradigms we accept.

Images: Here are images from the Symposium, without student faces in them. (Hence, we don’t have the majority of my favorite pictures.)



  1. Sam
    Kuhn’s book is one of the BIG books in my brain’s formulation. So cool that you got a group of kids to work though it. How did signups work? Did each student get his/her first or second choice? Were there caps on classes? Did all of them make it through? So interested in this process. My first school floated the idea of an evening seminar class in the winter/spring and had teacher proposals. I wrote up one that I still think about sometimes, but our idea was much more of a lecture/discussion series rather than being as detailed as this is.

    1. 1) Teachers “pitched” their courses and students ranked ALL 16 courses
      2) No, the majority of kids got their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices. But a few had to get their 4th or 5th choices. Priority was given to seniors when it came down to a junior and senior — because juniors would get to sign up the next year. If a junior got their 4th or 5th choice, they were promised priority the next year.
      3) Yes. Initially they said only the ones with enough enrollment would run, but then we were promised that all would run through. Considering the amount of time teachers spent designing the courses, it would have been very poor form (for teacher morale) to have a class not go through. Teachers were already feeling stressed about this, so to have the added stress that all our work was for naught would have driven us crazy.

      1. Sam
        Thanks for the quick, detailed reply. I just remembered something else related to this idea. I was on a job search four years ago. One of the schools I spoke with asked me – on the spot – to describe my dream course to teach. Not necessarily tied to any trad curriculum, just what would I love to teach. I thought it was such a great question!

  2. This is absolutely incredible! I don’t know what the results were, but strictly from a “Would I Want To Do This” standpoint I think this is great. It shows that a lot of thought and work was put into this. Kudos to you!

  3. Three comments and a question:
    First, the question; How did your students like the course? Did you have them do any sort of evaluation.
    1. We have a two-week J-term at my school but we offer two three hour classes, so you only teach the same group 3 hours per day, for 10 days. That might be less daunting but still allow you to do in-depth work. We also allow juniors and seniors to do an internship outside of school instead of classes to encourage them to explore careers.
    2. I am creating a J-term class next year that was inspired by your internet math activities project.
    3. You could edit the photos and cover student’s faces and then post them.

    1. Answer: Yes we had them do an evaluation. I can’t quite answer the question based on our responses.

      1. I proposed something like that. I was shot down. The problem people had with it is that many ppl wanted to take all day field trips (or overnight trips) as central to their course.
      2. Whoa, I can’t wait to hear about it!!!
      3. I know. I know. I am just sooooo lazy.

  4. I must have read the Kuhn book for a course. I don’t remember what course, but the book definitely made an impression.

    I can imagine how much work this was. I would love to hear more detail, if you are ever up for writing more about it.

    1. To be honest, I’m not sure I am going to write more about it. I’m still a bit braindead from me. However if you let me know what specifically you are looking for, maybe I can jot a few things down. Alternatively, are you going to TMC14? I could sit down and talk with you about it there.

      1. Some year, maybe I’ll get to go to TMC. But I go to the week-long math circle institute (themathcircle.org), and I really can’t leave my son more than that. (If you all ever do it in the bay area, or close by, I will definitely come.)

        So I’m re-reading to see what questions I had, and no one question stands out. I just want to see the details of this experience more clearly. My first question would be what the Boyle’s law experiment is. I looked that up (here: http://www.chm.davidson.edu/vce/gaslaws/boyleslaw.html), and looked at images of the j tubes with the mercury. Is it hard to get mercury? How do you work carefully with it? Did any get spilled? Does it get reused?

        I would like to see Boyle’s original paper. I’ve searched online, and found some tantalizing stuff, but not the paper.

        I also looked for Volta’s original paper. I see that it was in French, so I assume you gave them a translation. Not easy to find this online. I looked at this one: http://www.science20.com/chatter_box/electric_batteries_volta-114963 I am curious how you helped the kids read this. It looks like tough going.

        If you remember any colorful bits of the conversations you and the kids had, I would love to listen in.

        I am very impressed, so I’m wondering why you aren’t sure you were successful. It sounds like the kids did do the reading, and did get something out of it. It sounds like the experiments grounded them in what it was really like. You may feel like the amount they got out of it was not worth the effort you put in, which was enormous. But it sure sounds like the kids learned to see science differently.

        Don’t feel like you have to answer any of this. I learned a lot just by poking around online, trying to find those sources.

  5. Sam, I’m fascinated by this idea. Alberta is testing out a “High School Flexibility Project” which eliminates the Carnegie Unit, and gives schools the flexibility to do things like you describe. Your course sounds like it was a ton of work to prepare, but I suspect the students will remember it for a long time. I’m really curious what kinds of things the other teachers came up with. Can you share the full list of offerings? Did you all work in pairs to develop courses? Thanks for sharing your idea.

    1. Some worked individually, some in pairs.

      The symposium offerings were:

      Chinese History
      European Art Movements
      Experimentum Crucis
      Extreme Art
      Get Reel (making a professional film)
      Great Idea for an App
      Hip Hop 101
      History of Games
      Hudson Explorations
      Indian Culture and Dance
      Life’s Big Questions
      Math Art
      Play Ball
      Queer in the Media
      Songs of Social Protest
      The Great Outdoors

  6. Thanks. I’d like History of Games or Songs of Social Protest, please. Although I suspect many of your students had a tough time ranking them. They all look pretty interesting to me.

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