Innovations in Education

Using History of Science in College Biology Courses
by Joel B. Hagen
Radford University
History of Science Society Newsletter, Volume 29 No. 4
© 2000 by the History of Science Society, All rights reserved

It is sometimes said that we live in a scientific culture, but, if so, it is also a culture that can be perversely anti-scientific. The ongoing skirmishes surrounding teaching evolution in public schools are only the most notorious examples of this anomaly. Through specialized courses in history of science, members of our discipline contribute to educating the public about scientific matters, but these courses reach a limited audience. Many colleges and universities offer no courses in history of science, at all. Having spent most of my career teaching biology, I believe that many opportunities also exist for incorporating history in traditional biology courses. Doing so yields several benefits, not the least being that it provides a way for disseminating historical studies to a broad audience that might otherwise never encounter history of science. Introductory biology courses often enroll hundreds of students at a time. This approach also provides numerous opportunities to place contemporary events in science within historical contexts, thus developing studentsÕ abilities to critically evaluate scientific claims. Finally, it provide opportunities to form cooperative ventures with biologists, many of whom would use historical materials if these were widely available in forms that could be easily incorporated into existing curricula.

Several personal experiences convince me that a substantial group of college biology teachers around the country share this interest in using history of science. Seven years ago I organized a four-day conference which brought together historians of biology and college biology teachers to discuss topics of common interest. I ended up turning away almost a third of the applicants because of limited space and funding. Three years later when I organized a follow-up conference I doubled the projected enrollment, and still had to turn away many qualified applicants. I have encountered similar signs of interest at workshops that I have presented at meetings of the National Association of Biology Teachers. Furthermore, NABTÕs journal, The American Biology Teacher, sometimes features historical articles, including a monthly column by Maura Flannery, who teaches biology at St. JohnÕs University. Given these signs of interest, how can historians of science contribute to college biology teaching?

For more than a decade, calls for reform in science education have stressed the importance of understanding the process of science as well as its content. Process implies history, but most textbooks continue to present rather simplistic or misleading accounts of the "scientific method." The standard historical vignettes of Linneaus, Darwin, and Mendel are often not based on recent scholarship and do little to illuminate the process of scientific discovery. In an attempt to break this mold, Biology: The Network of Life by Michael Mix, Paul Farber, and Keith King urges college biology teachers to present science as "lineages of questions."1 This historical perspective emphasizes the dynamic nature of science and encourages students to see that new problems arise from older ones. Throughout the textbook Mix, Farber, and King place contemporary issues in biology within a fairly detailed historical context that includes social, cultural, and intellectual dimensions. A similar approach has been taken by the series of textbooks written by Jeffrey Baker and Garland Allen. Beginning in the late 1960s they made extensive use of historical cases to synthesize the content and process of science.2 Such historically sensitive textbooks may not have the mass appeal that commercial publishers crave, but the market for biology textbooks may now be fragmenting into numerous niches. Particularly with the growth of electronic publishing, specialty textbooks with a strong historical emphasis may become increasingly attractive to publishers, even if the books cannot promise to dominate the entire market. Whatever the case may turn out to be, the textbook writing efforts of historians of biology like Farber and Allen, who have collaborated with practicing biologists, provide important models for how to incorporate history of science into undergraduate biology courses. Opportunities also exist for developing more detailed historical accounts that go beyond the scope afforded by traditional textbooks. In response to discussions at the conference of historians and biologists at Radford University in 1993, Douglas Allchin, Fred Singer, and I wrote a collection of seventeen case studies to provide historical background for several topics covered in standard introductory biology courses.3 Averaging ten pages in length, the case studies present more information than the box essays found in textbooks, but can reasonably be assigned for students to read in a single sitting. Used in conjunction with a textbook, we hoped that the historical perspective would help students better understand biology today. This was a challenge, because we asked teachers to move beyond the familiar lecture, textbook, laboratory format of traditional biology courses. What I have since discovered is that this approach places many teachers in an awkward position. Students expect science classes to be about "facts," and both students and teachers often feel uncomfortable faced with situations where there are no clear-cut right and wrong answers. Successfully using these historical case studies has required training in teaching techniques that even some sympathetic teachers find foreign. Accepting ambiguity, considering alternative interpretations, and critically evaluating evidence are important intellectual skills, but not ones that most teachers employ very often in introductory biology classrooms. Although the market for this type of book is not large and none of us is getting rich on the royalties, we have been pleased that the case studies have been successfully used in a wide variety of courses from general education courses for non-majors to graduate courses in science education.

Another useful model for collaboration between historians and biologists is provided by the BioQUEST consortium.4 Although best known for its computer tools and simulations, BioQUEST has actively promoted the use of history and philosophy of science in biology teaching. The BioQUEST newsletter, which reaches approximately 5,000 college biology teachers, regularly features articles dealing with historical topics. A number of historians of biology have been invited to participate in summer workshops hosted by the consortium. By stressing the importance of authentic data sets, BioQUEST modules can also be used to foster historical perspectives. For example, the recently released computer data base, BIRDD, combines morphological data on the Galapagos finches collected by naturalists during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with more recent molecular, geographical, and ecological data. The program allows students to pose problems and attempt to solve them using real, unprocessed data. The primary objective of this project is not to teach history of biology, per se, but it lends itself to being used in ways that place contemporary science within a rich historical context. In using BioQUEST modules, the potential also exists for moving history from the background to the foreground by having students explore real historical episodes using authentic data.5 The BioQUEST workshops, held each summer at Beloit College, provide ideal environments for historians to explore such possibilities with a community of biologists committed to innovative teaching methods.

Although I have been impressed by college biology teachersÕ interest in using history, the expanded use of history of biology faces major challenges. By far, the most common concerns that I have encountered from biologists attending my workshops have to do with constraints posed by limited class time and course syllabi that are already packed with topics. Removing current biological content may seem unreasonable, particularly for teachers whose introductory courses are prerequisites for upper-division courses. This is often even more true for programs heavily aimed at successfully preparing students for medical school or graduate programs. If historical topics are to be added to biology courses, historians will need to make a convincing case that studentsÕ understanding of biology will be enhanced, or at least not harmed, in the process. Careful course planning can make room for historical topics without significantly reducing biological content, but this is not an easy task. To accomplish a satisfactory balance between teaching content and process, historians will need to work closely with biologists to produce materials that can fit effectively and efficiently in already crowded course calendars.

The strategies that I have outlined for bringing history into college biology courses may not appeal to all historians of science. To a purist, this type of "applied history" might seem to debase the standards that govern scholarly research. There is always the danger of re-enforcing the na•ve positivism of many students or falling prey to whiggish interpretations that focus exclusively upon events leading to currently accepted ideas. Like all popular writing, the major challenge is to present history that is both accurate and accessible to a relatively unsophisticated audience. By initiating students to history of science in this form we provide some useful background and potentially open the door for later studies in greater depth. A secondary challenge is packaging this history into small enough units to be easily incorporated into crowded curricula, without being misleading or merely anecdotal. Successfully achieving these diverse objectives is difficult, but the attempt can be a rewarding experience for those interested in expanding history of science by working at the interface between our discipline and broader public forums.

1Michael C. Mix, Paul Farber, and Keith I. King, Biology: The Network of Life, 2nd ed., New York, HarperCollins, 1996.

2 Jeffrey J.W. Baker and Garland E. Allen, The Study of Biology, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1967.

3. Joel Hagen, Douglas Allchin, and Fred Singer, Doing Biology, New York, HarperCollins, 1996.

4. Information about The BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium can be found at http//

5. One example of how this might be done with Mendelian genetics is discussed by Susan Johnson, "Student Understanding in a High School Genetics Class," Principled Practice in Mathematics & Science Education 1(1)(1997): 1-7 [available at].

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