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?
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Original papers by Robert Boyle and Alessandro Volta
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.)