Science Curriculum Standards Trivialize History of Science

K–12 science education in the U.S. has a new set of standards, the Next Generation Science Standards. The new standards are supposed to set uniform benchmarks for teaching science and encourage depth of investigation rather than broad coverage. Four organizations spearheaded the process and various states signed on to help generate the standards. Unfortunately, despite handwaving gestures, the standards largely ignore the history of science and historians of science. Historians of science missed an opportunity here.

The history of science has, in general, been considered ancillary any science curriculum. The sidebar histories add a pleasant “human dimension” to scientific discoveries. If history of science has intruded into the teaching of science, it falls under the category “Nature of Science.” The “Nature of Science” appears as an appendix in the new standards. Within this “Nature of Science” a subcategory focuses on “Science is a Human Endeavor.” At first glance this looks promising. Unfortunately, in looking at the chart, because everything vaguely scientific has to have a chart, the “learning outcomes” seem like platitudes rather than real commitments:

  • Scientific knowledge is a result of human endeavor, imagination, and creativity.
  • Individuals and teams from many nations and cultures have contributed to science and to advances in engineering.
  • Scientists’ backgrounds, theoretical commitments, and fields of endeavor influence the nature of their findings.
  • Technological advances have influenced the progress of science and science has influenced advances in technology.
  • Science and engineering are influenced by society and society is influenced by science and engineering.

Unfortunately, the report’s suggestions for implementing these “learning outcomes” stress the progressive and cumulative nature of science. The history of science is enlisted here as “another method for presenting the nature of science.”

The use of case studies from the history of science provides contexts in which to develop students’ understanding of the nature of science. In the middle and high school grades, for example, case studies on the following topics might be used to broaden and deepen understanding about the nature of science.

  • Copernican Revolution
  • Newtonian Mechanics
  • Lyell’s Study of Patterns of Rocks and Fossils
  • Progression from Continental Drift to Plate Tectonics
  • Lavoisier/Dalton and Atomic Structure
  • Darwin Theory of Biological Evolution and the Modern Synthesis
  • Pasteur and the Germ Theory of Disease
  • James Watson and Francis Crick and the Molecular Model of Genetics[1]

Tellingly, historical case studies are included so that “students can understand the nature of explanations in the larger context of scientific models, laws, mechanisms, and theories” [my emphasis].

The use of case studies to convey the nature of explanations within the context of scientific models, laws, mechanisms, and theories shouldn’t surprise anybody. The standards took James Conant and the Harvard Case Studies in History of Science as their model. Historians of science have clearly failed to make a case for why science education at all levels of the curriculum would be better if it incorporated history of science (or science studies) as more than diversionary stories. As a result, we get a clean and unproblematic division between science and society, an older and problematic division between science and engineering/technology,[2] and a committee of “[t]wenty-six states and their broad-based teams [who] worked together with a 41-member writing team and partners throughout the country to develop the standards,” that somehow failed to include any historians of science.

  1. These examples clearly support a particular, triumphalist narrative. It would be fun to rewrite these examples in a way to undermine that narrative, e.g., “Copernican Revolution in Astrology” or “Newtonian Mechanics of Alchemy” or “James Watson and Francis Crick steal results from Rosalind Franklin.”  ↩

  2. “Science is the pursuit of explanations of the natural world, and technology and engineering are means of accommodating human needs, intellectual curiosity and aspirations.” Science is intellectual; technology and engineering are practical.  ↩