Karen Elinich - Action Research Project

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April 2, 2005


SCIENCE: A Living Process

The nature of science exists at the crossroads of human curiosity, the physical world, the natural environment, and social interaction. Those who stand at that crossroads are the scientists and inventors—like Edison, Einstein, and Curie—who change the world. Their lives exist, in retrospect, as case studies of what it means to be an individual in service to science. But, those individuals never stand alone. They act as members of social networks that provide the infrastructure and opportunity for innovation. (Latour, 1987) They communicate and collaborate with peers as they think about how to make sense of the world and demonstrate that science is a living process of change.

STUDENTS: Losing Interest in Science

Science is a primary exploration of the dynamic interaction of human beings and the natural world, yet K-12 students learn science using secondary sources in isolation from social networks. This contradiction negatively impacts K-12 student interest in science. Students commonly experience scientific phenomena in isolation—from other phenomena and from other investigators—while using derivative sources of information. (Lederman, 2004) To counteract the negative impact of science education, students need an introduction to the dynamic social nature of a professional life in service to science.

The stories of science across the generations illustrate the nature of scientific life, yet science textbooks and resource materials present lifeless, sanitized accounts of dramatic events. (Lederman, 2004; Clough, 2004) The real unfiltered history of science can humanize the scientific process and address common student misconceptions. (Rudge, 2004; Matthews, 1994)

K-12 students can meet the inspirational role models who populate the history of science through examination of historical documents and work with primary source materials. Students can come to understand the challenges and rewards of the scientific and technological enterprise, and of the lives of the people who undertake it. (Schamel, 1998) For example, time spent considering the documentary evidence of Marie Curie’s work within the international network of chemists—not to mention within her own household—suggests a vibrant life that was never boring. Through primary sources and prompted reflection upon the scientific achievements of the past, students can develop readiness for the transformative impact of today’s research on tomorrow’s world.

Documented use of primary sources in K-6 lacks depth. (Otten, 2000) Evidence exists, however, to suggest that the use of primary sources in grades 9-12 is burdened by a need to overcome false notions about the nature of science. (Tao, 2003) Early intervention, therefore, is likely to be impactful.

Technology can be a particularly effective tool for achieving this educational goal; (Kelley, 2002; Becker, 2000a, 2000b; Brown, 2000) Museums cannot reasonably allow student examination of the real artifacts. Through the Web, students can work with primary sources without risk. Of course, students need structures to help them understand how to use the primary sources and how to draw conclusions from them. Research suggests that scaffolding models that have been successful in classroom learning can be applied to technology-supported learning environments. (McLoughlin, 1999; Lee, 2004; Bereiter, 1993)


TEACHERS: Social Actors in Science

The National Science Education Standards call for K-12 students to develop an understanding of the nature of science, so student use of primary sources is appropriate. (National Committee on Science Education Standards, 1996; Olson, 2000) However, few K-12 teachers are ready to answer this call. In many cases, teachers have a naïve understanding of professional science. (McComas, 2004; Abd, 2000) By providing access to the real artifacts of the history of science, teachers can be comfortably challenged to consider what it truly means to “do science.” (McKinney, 2004) Only then can they begin to engage their students in meaningful ways with a conceptualization of the nature of science and to develop the intellectual curiosity that leads to deeper investigation of the world around them. (Otten, 1998)

Research has shown that this strategy of direct teacher engagement can lead to important professional growth. For example, the National Writing Project has documented its successful approaches to teacher development that derive from: a distinctive set of social practices that motivate teachers, make learning accessible, and build an ongoing professional community; and networks that organize and sustain relationships among these communities and produce new and revitalizing forms of support, commitment, and leadership. (Liberman, 2002) The Writing Project has shown that teachers become better writing teachers by becoming better writers. A strong parallel exists between the Writing Project’s approaches—social practices, accessibility, professional community, and social networks—and the professional nature of science. As Latour (1987) suggests, the nature of science involves many social actors. As teachers become better actors in the scientific process, they become better science teachers.

Tested models from the National Writing Project, therefore, can be applied to professional development for science teachers. However, the venues and opportunities for teacher engagement with primary sources in science are limited. Science Museums offer a unique solution to the challenge.


MUSEUMS: Science Centers for Change

The research literature highlights the importance of addressing teachers’ misconceptions about the nature of science before they can engage students. (Abd, 2000) Professional development of this kind is a very large challenge, one that museums can help accomplish. However, museum education efforts in this realm remain unfocused and undocumented.

Museums around the world hold a vast collection of primary source documents from the history of science and technology. The Franklin Institute Science Museum, for example, holds a collection of thousands of documentary case files related to pioneering individuals. (McMahon, 1977) Only rarely do museums make their documents accessible to the K-12 educational community, although museum digitization efforts are making them more available than ever. However, the purpose of digitization is not primarily educational. In a recent survey, museums ranked their primary goals for digitization. Serving students and teachers ranked third behind preservation and professional access. (IMLS, 2002) Despite the museum community’s enthusiastic embrace of Schoen’s “reflective practitioner” concept, many museum educators stop short of developing a vision for the use of primary sources in K-12 education. (Silverman, 2004)

As more of these primary source materials are digitized and made accessible online, the need increases for teachers to develop an understanding of their value and use for K-12 science education. Some museums have established models for helping teachers develop strategies for using primary sources in their classroom practice. (Allen, 2005; Bennett, 2000, 2002a, 2002b; Sayre, 2002; Schamel, 1998) However, these initiatives keep the teachers distanced from the real artifacts. A need remains to investigate the efficacy of direct, hands-on teacher use of primary sources. Teachers will develop their own understanding of the nature of science through work with primary sources. By developing online scaffolds for student use of those primary sources, teachers will then bring their students into direct encounters with the history of science. The research literature related to this proposed model appears ungrounded. This project, therefore, represents an opportunity to contribute foundational data for the national science and museum education communities.



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Allen, N. (2005). Collaboration through the Colorado Digitization Project. Web Wise Conference Proceedings 2005 .
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