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TPS Quarterly

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Primary Sources and Science

By Mark Newman & Carrie Copp

“The results were fantastic!” said high school physics teacher Casey Veatch after implementing a Library of Congress primary source into his science lesson. Middle school science teacher Rebecca Prince further explains. “Primary sources always create what I like to call the ‘lean in factor:’ students sit up in their seats, lean forward on their desks, and engage in the discussions that revolve around the primary sources.”

Analyzing historical primary sources about science expands critical thinking and promotes student inquiry, just as it does in other disciplines. Students can learn about the history and application of various scientific discoveries through the use of primary sources. Using historical primary sources in science instruction also builds important skills, such as observation and inference, that are integral to experimentation and the scientific method. Primary sources can appeal to all learners. They promote interdisciplinary instruction and involve students in learning content as well as building skills.

Rebecca Prince, a middle school science teacher at Rhodes School in River Grove, Illinois, first used primary sources during her student teaching. “I really liked the way primary sources sparked critical thinking and interest in social studies among my students,” she commented. “Once I became a science teacher, I wanted to use primary sources from the Library to create authentic scientific inquiry experiences.”

Prince’s current classroom includes students who are English language learners or have special needs. She has found images to be more effective learning aids than print resources because many of her students have low reading skills. Many science experiments, however, rely primarily on written procedures, which can be difficult for her students to follow. Prince wanted to design a learning experience that built on student strengths and created an environment that encouraged them to strive for success in science.

In one example of how Prince has used Library of Congress primary sources as the basis for scientific inquiry, she gave her students Samuel Morse's sketches as a model for building their own telegraphs. Prince used photographs to have students study the uses of the telegraph. "Then, as they became more adept at using primary sources to find information," Prince explained, "they studied Samuel Morse and his telegraph sketches." Having learned how to interpret primary sources in a meaningful way, Prince's students made working telegraphs. The Morse sketches were an inspiration for their creativity.

Equally important, Prince noted, “They really enjoyed their experience. That exuberance for learning extended to the lab where they used what they had learned from primary sources to build their own telegraphs,” she said. “As a teacher, it was exciting to watch as my students took over their own learning.”

Casey Veatch is a high school physics teacher at Bennett High School in Bennett, Colorado. He also is the District Librarian for the Bennett School District and is an Anatomy, Physiology, and Physics instructor for Morgan Community College. He and his wife Carrie, an online social studies teacher for Vilas Online School in Colorado, developed a lesson for his high school physics class that used Alexander Graham Bell’s science notebook from the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers in the American Memory Collection.

In her social studies classroom, Carrie observed the lesson helped “the students make a connection to their prior knowledge about Bell and sound reproduction. They had read about Bell and sound reproduction in their textbook, but the primary sources from the Library of Congress helped students make a personal connection to the concept and the scientist.” Bell was no longer an abstract historical figure; he had become a real person to the students.

Casey had his physics students recreate Bell's tuning fork experiment to prove sound can be transmitted through a wire. He used the primary sources to further teach the scientific method. As was the case with Rebecca Prince’s science students, Casey’s students used their greater skill at interpreting primary sources to recreate Bell's experiment successfully. "These primary sources from the Library led students to connect, construct, and wonder," he noted.

An important learning lesson for both groups of students concerned the often difficult path of scientific inquiry and experimentation. Casey commented that his students “could see the writing and sketches in his [Bell’s] notebook and wondered why some of the entries were scratched out as they attempted to follow Bell’s line of thinking.” Prince explained that her students followed a path similar to that of many inventors. “Since many first attempts did not succeed, my students learned to accept failure as a challenge rather than defeat. And, it definitely inspired them to work harder. Many of the students were successful in the end and they really enjoyed their experience.”

Both Rebecca Prince and Casey Veatch continue to use primary sources from the Library of Congress in their science classes. As part of her seventh grade curriculum, Prince’s students are constructing a bridge using pasta. She plans to show them primary sources that contain actual bridges to serve as guides and inspiration for scientific inquiry.

Veatch is currently developing a lesson on the mechanics of flight using a letter from Orville Wright to his father describing a science experiment he performed as a young student. He sees how this document can generate excitement among his students as they attempt to interpret the meaning behind Orville Wright’s experiment.

Mark Newman is Director of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities’ Teaching with Primary Sources project and associate professor of Curriculum & Instruction at National-Louis University, Chicago, Illinois.

Carrie Copp is a project associate on the Federation TPS project and a graduate student in the Elementary Education MAT Program at National-Louis University.

Selected Science Resources from the Library of Congress

Presentations and Activities: From Flight to Fantasy
Resources from the Library of Congress documenting the history of flight.

Presentations and Activities: What in the World is That? Ingenious Inventions throughout History
Throughout history, creative men and women have developed ingenious inventions that have solved problems and changed people's lives. Use your observation skills in this matching activity to learn more about some of these wonderful innovations.

Themed Resources: Science and Invention
Learn about the early recording efforts of Emile Berliner, Bell’s experiments with the telephone, early aviation, and the history of household technology through presentations and primary source images, notebooks and letters. Study early environmental movements and photographs.

Themed Resources: Nature and the Environment
Study man-made and natural disasters, the origins of the American conservation movement, and view Landsat photographs, valued for aesthetics more than their contributions to geography. Use maps to trace the growth and unique features of the National Parks. Learn about nature writers and visual artists.