Tag: Teaching

The Astronomy Exam at Haverford College in 1859

In the late 1850s students at Haverford College had to pass exams in three departments: English, Classics, and Mathematics.[1] They demonstrated their mastery in these divisions through a grueling set of exams at the end of the senior year.[2] First they had to pass a battery of private exams that covered all the subjects and spanned two weeks. These private exams were followed by a set of public exams.

According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty had to determine the private exam schedule in advance and give the seniors one full week’s notice. In 1859 the seniors had to take the following test:

Private Exams at Haverford College in 1859
Week 1 Week 2
AM PM AM PM
2nd Day Antigone & Grk. Ex. Differential Calculus Dymond Lat. Prose (Cic. & Tacit.)
3rd Day Kent’s Commentaries Integral Calculus Analyt. Geometry Butler
4th Day Logic Rhetoric Horace & Lat. Ex. Mechanics
5th Day Intellect. Philosophy
6th Day Political Economy Thucydides Optics
7th Day Astronomy
At the faculty meeting on May 27, 1859, the faculty determined the schedule for the first week of private exams that year. Nearly a month later the faculty got around to finalizing the second week’s exam schedule. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).
At the faculty meeting on May 27, 1859, the faculty determined the schedule for the first week of private exams that year. Nearly a month later the faculty got around to finalizing the second week’s exam schedule. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).

Each exam was supposed to include a “series of written questions … [with] a number being annexed to each question, to represent the value assigned to a correct answer” and must include a “suitable number of questions” to test the students’ mastery. Each day students filed into the examination room where under the watchful eye of a faculty member they were prohibited from talking to each other while they took the exam. Exams lasted up to four hours.

Seemingly in an effort to reduce bias against students, the faculty had stipulated that each student should assume a motto and should sign his exams not with his name but with that motto. According to the regulations set down in 1855:

XII The papers containing the answers, must not be signed with the students [sic] name, but with a name or motto, assumed for the occasion; and a sealed envelope, inscribed with said assumed name, and containing the real one, must be handed in to the first meeting of the council, after the merit of the answers has been determined.

Predictably, some students were quite creative in the mottos they adopted, sometimes capturing, no doubt, their own anxiety about the exams:
Crocket, H. St. John, Mohawk, O!, Kit Carson, Incog., Imparatus, No Anxiety, Anxietas, √–1.

Equally predictably, others viewed it as a tedious task, choosing something trite—Greek letters were common, e.g., Omega and Beta were common.

Some of the mottos reflect the prominence of the classics in Haverford’s early curriculum:
Aeneas, Tyro, Hesperus, Ajax, Hector, Themistocles, Ὄνομα, Ἑρμῆς, Ξένος, Παραδειγμα, Φευ φευ.

Finally, and most interesting to me, some mottos seem to reflect a growing interest in astronomy, e.g., Regulus, Hipparchus, and most bluntly Telescope.

In 1859 eight students took the private exams.

The faculty always recorded student performances in the Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, listing both the student’s motto, his real name, and his grades in the three departments as well as his average. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).
The faculty always recorded student performances in the Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, listing both the student’s motto, his real name, and his grades in the three departments as well as his average. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).

The Haverford College Catalogue lists the books seniors studied and the faculty who taught the various course. From the list of books and the public lectures faculty agreed to give, we glean some idea of what seniors were supposed to have learned. In the late 1850s Moses Stevens was responsible for teaching the mathematics, which was divided into three subjects: mechanical philosophy, optics, and physical and practical astronomy. For the first two subjects, students were assigned a book by Olmsted, perhaps Dennis Olmsted’s An Introduction to Natural Philosophy (1844)). For astronomy, they read a book by Robinson, probably Horatio Robinson’s A Treatise on Astronomy, Descriptive, Physical, and Practical (1850).

The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 lists the books students read in the mathematics department. The books included a text by Olmsted on mechanical philosophy and optics, and a book by Robinson on astronomy. The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 is available online here; this particular page is available here.
The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 lists the books students read in the mathematics department. The books included a text by Olmsted on mechanical philosophy and optics, and a book by Robinson on astronomy. The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 is available online here; this particular page is available here.

Although we don’t have Stevens’s lecture notes, we do have copies of the exams he gave the students in 1859 along with the students’ answers and marks on each section.[3] Stevens divided mathematics into six areas and tested the students on each: Analytical Geometry, Differential Calculus, Integral Calculus, Mechanics, Astronomy, Optics. The first three the students learned as juniors; the second three they studied as seniors.

Stevens tested the students in six areas. He recorded their grades in this summary table and then reported to the faculty the students’ general average on the battery of mathematics exams. Here, each area was worth 10pts for a maximum total of 60 pts. In some cases, students earned more than the maximum points—if their answers were particularly good, they could earn extra credit. The students were, apparently, most prepared for the optics exam and least prepared for the astronomy exam. These exams are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Stevens tested the students in six areas. He recorded their grades in this summary table and then reported to the faculty the students’ general average on the battery of mathematics exams. Here, each area was worth 10pts for a maximum total of 60 pts. In some cases, students earned more than the maximum points—if their answers were particularly good, they could earn extra credit. The students were, apparently, most prepared for the optics exam and least prepared for the astronomy exam. These exams are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

Although all the exams—both the exams for the various mathematical subjects and the different students’ exams in each subject—would repay study, here I’ll look at just one student’s responses to the astronomy exam. The student, “Katabasis”—Benjamin H. Smith[4] was his real name—was an average student. He performed slightly better than average on the astronomy exam, but overall he was slightly below average.

When Katabasis walked in to examination room on the morning of the seventh day of the first week of exams he confronted nine questions that asked him to identify astronomical instruments and their parts, define astronomical terms, and carry out a range of calculations:

Astronomy

  1. Name the varities [sic][5] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each. Val 5.
  2. Describe the transit instrument. Val 6.
  3. How do we compute the correction for to the time of transit, for inclination of axis, for collimation and for meridian? [Val] 20.
  4. Given the R.A. and Dec. of two stars to find their distance apart. [Val] 8.
  5. Give a method for finding the lat. of a place. [Val] 10.
  6. How can we find the position of the equinoctial points? [Val] 10.
  7. What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed? [Val] 8.
  8. Give the method of computing Rad. of earth at any point. [Val] 12.
  9. Define the parallax of a heavenly body, and show how to computer the par. of moon in R.A. [Val] 21.
Katabasis neatly copied out the astronomy examination questions. Minor spelling mistakes, e.g., “varities” for “varieties,” and abbreviations were common in the students’ copies of the questions. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis neatly copied out the astronomy examination questions. Minor spelling mistakes, e.g., “varities” for “varieties,” and abbreviations were common in the students’ copies of the questions. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

Unfortunately, there’s no indication how long Katabasis and the other students had to complete the exam, though a couple of them remarked that they didn’t complete a question because “time fails.”

Although the three years of astronomy courses at Haverford used Robinson’s textbook, when Moses Stevens taught the course he had to supplement this material. For example, Robinson’s textbook said nothing about varieties of eye-pieces or transit instruments. Katabasis’ answer to question one seems to have come from Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy, which the college assigned a couple years later as the astronomy textbook. The order, the drawings, the terminology, and even the underlining in Katabasis’ answer echo that found in Loomis’s textbook.[6] Perhaps equally telling, the unnecessary information and detail Katabasis added, e.g., when he described how to “find the power of the telescope,” is exactly the detail that follows Loomis’s discussion of eye-pieces.[7]

Katabasis’ answer to question one: “Name the varities [sic] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each.” It seems likely that the source of this information was Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis’ answer to question one: “Name the varities [sic] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each.” It seems likely that the source of this information was Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

It is easy to imagine one of two scenarios: First, Stevens turned to Loomis’s textbook to fill in important information he thought was missing from the assigned text. Haverford had, after all, built and equipped a new observatory that it prided itself on and required students to use. In such a case, basic, practical knowledge of the instruments would be useful. Second, Katabasis had for one reason or another not learned the information in class. To make up his deficiency he had consulted Loomis’s text during his six weeks of review prior to the exam.[8]

Although the college boasted that its students had plenty of opportunity to do astronomy in its new observatory, only the first two questions gave the students a chance to demonstrate their experience working with astronomical instruments. And even these two questions don’t require working with instruments so much as being able to describe their parts—neither required the tacit knowledge that students might gain only from working with instruments. Most of the exam asked students to explain how, in principle, to carry out certain astronomical calculations. Surprisingly absent from the exam were problems that asked the student to carry out astronomical calculations.

Again, Katabasis’ answers to these latter questions seem to owe a debt to Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy rather than Robinson’s text. For example, question 7 asks to define the “angle of the vertical” and show how to calculate it. This term is found nowhere in Robinson’s textbook. However, in Loomis’s text this problem is explained in terms remarkably similar to Katabasis’ answer, including the diagram that illustrates both Katabasis’ exam and Loomis’s textbook.

Katabasis’ answer to question 7, “What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed?” so closely resembles the example in Loomis’s textbook that it seems likely that Loomis, not Robinson, was being used in the classroom. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis’ answer to question 7, “What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed?” so closely resembles the example in Loomis’s textbook that it seems likely that Loomis, not Robinson, was being used in the classroom. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the questions are found in Loomis’s textbook but not in Robinsons. Question 6, e.g., asked how to find the equinoctial points. Whereas Robinson’s text says nothing about this problem, Loomis’s textbook discusses the issue and works three examples. Unfortunately for Katabasis, he did not recall either the discussion or the examples. For question 6 he noted, simply, “Non reminiscor.”

The astronomy exam and Katabasis’ answers give us a glimpse of Haverford’s astronomy curriculum in the mid–19th century. Together they help us see beyond the prescribed curriculum and texts—in this case, his answers suggests that the prescribed text was not the primary resource used to teach astronomy. The exam questions also give us a chance to see what the college considered valuable astronomical knowledge. Considered alongside the other students’ exams and Katabasis’ own diary, we can perhaps begin to piece together a detailed picture of astronomy education at Haverford College in the mid–19th century.[9]


  1. These departments resemble our current divisions. Mathematics, for example, included mathematics as well as mechanics, optics, and astronomy. English was divided into “Ethics etc.” and “Belles-Lettres.”  ↩

  2. During the same period the class known as “second junior” (what we now call sophomores) took a set of exams. Before long Haverford did away with it idiosyncratic “second junior” and “third junior” terms and adopted the more common (and now standard) sophomore and freshman.  ↩

  3. Unfortunately, I have not located copies of Stevens’s lecture notes, so we don’t have a clear sense of what he tried to teach the students. We do have Samuel Gummere’s lecture notes from a few years later, after he took over the teaching of mathematics. I’ve looked briefly at Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus, but his entire set of notes merit further attention.  ↩

  4. I have just noticed that we have a copy of B.H. Smith’s diary while he was a student here at Haverford—it is also in this collection Call# 910H, which is a treasure trove of diaries, lecture notes, and other source material (it also includes another set of lecture notes by Samuel Gummere (see Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus for a set of notes from Call# 910F)). I didn’t have a chance to look at it before writing this post but will look read through it as soon as I can.  ↩

  5. The slight variations and minor spelling mistakes in the questions across student papers suggests that the students had to copy the questions from a blackboard (one student didn’t write out the questions to the astronomy exam, just his answers, so it seems unlikely that students wrote down questions as they were read aloud at the beginning of he examination).  ↩

  6. Although the description of eye-pieces is sufficiently generic to cast doubt on finding Katabasis’ source, the underlining in his answer that corresponds to the italics in Loomis’s text certainly suggests a close link between the two. I’m not implying any malfeasance on Katabasis’ part. Just looking for sources for his information.  ↩

  7. It is interesting to see students in the 19th century doing what students still do today and perhaps have always done: bulking up answers with unnecessary information. Perhaps this practice comes from not yet knowing (or being confident that you know) what a good answer would include. Perhaps it comes from a general anxiety about having left something out. Perhaps it comes from a mistaken notion that more is better or at least not worse. Whatever the source, it’s comforting to know that what I no doubt did as a student and what I see students doing now has a long pedigree.  ↩

  8. According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty gave the seniors and second juniors a six-week reading period to prepare for exams:

    II. The Senior and 2d Junior Classes, will be allowed the six weeks next preceding the examination, for a general review of their studies….
    Haverford’s current one-week reading period seems paltry in comparison  ↩

  9. If only we could find a copy of Moses Stevens’s lecture notes for this period, we would be set. Samuel Gummere’s notes from a few years later might also be helpful, especially because by that point Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy was the prescribed textbook.  ↩

Field Trip to The Chemical Heritage Foundation

Each time I teach Collecting Nature & Displaying Authority we take three field trips to local museums. Our first outing took us to the ‎Chemical Heritage Foundation. Megan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants, led us around on an informative tour and engaging tour of the permanent exhibition, Making Modernity.

A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.
A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.

The students were pensive and measured but asked really interesting questions about curators, visitors, tours, objects, displays, design, architecture, public engagement, policy, scholars and fellows, funding, etc.

Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.
Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.

Before we went to the CHF, students compiled a list of questions or issues that they wanted to think about when they visited:

  1. How does the museum—through its history, its literature, its architecture, its collections, etc.—represent itself? What image is it trying to project?
  2. Who is encouraged to visit the museum?
  3. Is there an entrance fee?
  4. Is there a gift shop?
  5. How are visitors expected to act in the museum?
  6. What does the museum expect visitors to know?
  7. Are there guides or docents or gallery attendants? If so, what role do they play?
  8. How are the objects arranged, labeled, displayed? What do those choices suggest?
  9. Are there coherent themes that recur in the gallery? Is there a unified theme?
  10. Are donors identified in any way, e.g., a wall of donors, listed on individual displays?
  11. Are donors’ contributions indicated, e.g., by items donated, by amount of money donated?
  12. What argument is the museum trying to make? What message does it want visitors to take home?

They also thought of a few things to do while there:

  1. Choose three things (e.g., objects, cases, portraits, books, lighting, plinth) and explain what they are doing in this museum.
  2. Pick out one or two objects or display cases that surprised you in some way and explain why it surprised you?
  3. Find two or three things that are part of the display but not “on display,” e.g., lighting fixtures, handrail, curtains, and explain what they are doing, how they affect the display, what choices they represent.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label. Read more about this portrait at the CHF webpage.

Given the smart questions students asked, I am looking forward to reading their write-ups about the visit.

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.  ↩

The MORU as Precursor to the MOOC

MOOCs are all the rage right now—academics generally upset or unimpressed and disruptors generally optimistic.

What intrigues me is how familiar the kook-aid (sorry, typo) Kool-aid tastes. The latest technology becomes the mechanism to democratize learning, to bring the best college and university lectures to the underprivileged, and to expand learning to hundreds of thousands of students. The 20th century is littered with such failed schemes. Educational utopia seems as distant at every other post-lapsarian paradise.

Browsing the Popular Science archive, I stumbled across this example: “Professor-Inventor Predicts ‘Radio Universities’.”

1303167mooc

Professor Pupin from Colombia University foresaw a “Radio Extension University” poised to disrupt the educational landscape. Once the loudspeaker was perfected, Pupin predicted that “a great university like Colombia, equipped with a powerful broadcasting station for distributing to a knowledge-hungry people some of the vast store of authoritative knowledge accumulated by its great professors and teachers” will broadcast lectures to scores of halls and public meeting places equipped with radio receivers and powerful loudspeakers. The “internationally famous professor, in his classroom, is delivering a lecture on some fascinating new chapter of, say, natural science” that is broadcast to perhaps 100,000 people who have “paid 10¢ for the privilege, first of hearing the lecture by radio, then of submitting answers in a written examination covering the rudiments of the subject.”

Not only does Professor Pupin think this model will provide a university education to those otherwise denied such opportunities, he suspects that soon houses where some “ingenious youth has installed a homemade radio outfit with a loudspeaker” listens to a lecture and then takes a written exam “mailed to him from the university.”

If Professor Pupin’s MORU had succeeded, we wouldn’t now be hearing so much about MOOCs.