History of a Scientific Discovery – Timeline Construction

mark_thumbnailI really like to use timelines when teaching the history of scientific discovery. I think that it allows students to see the progression of scientific ideas, and how discoveries build on top of each other. I also would require students to include other historical events that were going on at the time, so that they understand that science is conducted in the world at large, and that historical events shape the lives and discoveries of scientists.

One specific possibility for the use of a timeline is the history of atomic theory. This topic is often presented in a linear (not exactly accurate) or non-linear (usually confusing) manner in textbooks. It was also greatly affected by historical events – especially the two world wars. Timelines help describe the nature and history of science, and open rich possibilities for cross disciplinary collaboration.

A web application I’ve used is called Timeglider. It allows free student accounts, with some restrictions. With a paid account, it allows multiple users to collaborate on one timeline. This means that the entire class could contribute to one large timeline, but for the sake of this project outline, I’ll stick with free student accounts.

Session 1: Students in small groups research one scientist involved in the development of atomic theory (Biographic information and description of important discovery)

Session 2: Students synthesize research and make a stand-alone presentation with the relevant information (If you want students to practice extract information from spoken presentations, you could have these be presented by the group). Presentations are collected online.

Session 3: Students work individually to construct timelines based on the information presented by their peers. They must add historical events to the timeline that they believe are relevant.

Session 4: Share timeline and write reflectively to report out. Possible writing prompts include: How did earlier scientists affect later scientists? How do you think scientists who were working at the same time communicated their findings with each other? Why did you choose to make some events larger or smaller on the timeline? How did the historical events you chose affect the scientific world? Why do you think there were some time periods with lots of new discovery, and some time periods with very little discovery?

I feel that this type of project is highly adaptable to different topics in the sciences. History of space exploration, history of cell theory, etc. I do think the topic should be bounded, however, from being writ too largely (history of science), and it should be based on the actions of human beings. Timeline projects are rich in synthesis and can help students make connections across their classrooms and into their world.

Mark W. Olofson

Mark is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the Education Leadership and Policy Studies program at the University of Vermont. He previously taught Middle and High School science and math. Mark has been with TIIE since Fall 2013.

What do you think?