Innovations in Education

[Editor’s note: We are delighted to announce the revival of a column on teaching and pedagogy in the history of science, a topic that is sometimes overlooked in the flurry of doing and sharing our research with one another, especially in our annual meetings. What is more, we reintroduce the section with quite a bang, featuring not just one, but two, articles: the first, some reflections on innovative teaching strategies and the importance of multilingualism in our discipline, by Michael Osborne, winner of the 2019 Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize; and the second, by Mark Carnes of Barnard College, about an exciting and immersive “game”-based pedagogy, which he has helped adapt for use in history of science classrooms.]

Ringing Doorbells in the History of Science

by Michael Osborne (Oregon State University)

The editor of the HSS Newsletter has provided me—as recipient of the 2019 Hazen Prize, for which I’m both grateful and humbled—with an opportunity to reflect on effective pedagogy in the history of science, and on my efforts to internationalize the discipline. I’ll begin by reminding readers that there simply isn’t a magic formula for effective teaching! Effective teaching, as we all know, takes many forms and requires teachers to maintain a diverse set of tools and to use those tools and alter them often. Now, after several years of changing the jokes in my lectures to try to tap into the undergraduate zeitgeist, I am in the process of recycling hundreds of slides from the early years of my teaching career, having long ago turned to PowerPoint.

When I accepted the Hazen Prize in Utrecht, I likened good teaching to pressing a doorbell on a house—with the student being the house of course. I make no claims of sophistication in this approach to teaching, but it is less straightforward than it seems. “Houses” come in different styles with varying commitments to learning and different backgrounds and language skills. Each student has a “doorbell” located in a different place and good teachers strive to find it and get the student to open the door. A key for me has been to listen, and to help students, especially generations of very bright science students, ask and answer historical questions. One way to do this is with primary texts and a hands-on knowledge of the materials of science. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, I required graduate students in my course on embryonic stem cells and ethics to tour the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering and view the cells in action. At Oregon State University, in particular, I have made extensive use of our Special Collections in History of Science. Each iteration of my history of biology course required two external “labs”: one focused on rare books, and another on the collections of the chemist Linus Pauling whose ingenious balloon and marble models of molecular configurations and two Nobel prizes sent some students into a state of awe. Former students have come up to me years later and often the one thing they remember about my teaching is having been able to touch a Nobel Prize medal and read books like the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As one ecological science major in my “Three Revolutions in Biology” course, after completion of a nice project on Darwin’s publications, told me, “I didn’t know you could think this way.”

My career has largely focused on non-Anglophone science, and I have served on dissertation committees in France, La Réunion, and Australia.  One key to internationalizing the history of science is the teaching of foreign languages in our schools and universities. Even though, as Michael Gordin has shown us in his wonderful book Scientific Babel, English is now the language of science, the history and the historiography of science continue to be polyglot. Therefore, I would argue that we need to support and advocate for foreign language teaching at every level, because unfortunately it is languishing at many institutions.

I would like to signal two international programs sensitive to the multilingual nature of our discipline, which are designed to engage students in historical thinking about science. Both are associated with the activities of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology [IUHPST]. The first, with which I have been associated since 2005, is a competition for completed dissertations on history of science, technology, or medicine, run by the IUHPST’s Division of History of Science and Technology [DHST]. To date we have refereed more than 100 dissertations from around the world. It is fairly easy to find referees in most Western languages, as well as Chinese, Russian, and Japanese. Formerly, non-English language dissertations required a 20-page English summary. After all, the argument went, English is the language of science and most historians of science read it. We recently altered that rule out of respect for the multi-lingual nature of the field and now require all dissertations, irrespective of language, to include a 20-page English summary to avoid the appearance of discrimination against contributions not written in English. My DHST colleagues feel strongly that history of science written in local—read non-English—languages needs to be nurtured. This may seem a small issue, especially since Isis and Osiris now only publish in English, but it is not. One only needs to examine the field at the global level to realize that the preservation of non-English language history of science is vital to all of us. I am unsure how many tenure line posts in history of science will open in North America this year. I hope there are many. But let’s ask where the growth of our field, beneficiary of the Cold War as it was, is likely to be in the next few decades? When I was in Beijing a few years ago my hosts told me that China planned to have 180 new history of science posts in the next few years. I haven’t made a tally of what was actually created, although two recent Chinese students who studied with us at Oregon State now have permanent posts in China, where of course, the language of instruction is Chinese.

Bernie Lightman (left) and Michael Osborne at the Prize ceremony in Utrecht.

Bernie Lightman (left) and Michael Osborne at the Prize ceremony in Utrecht.

A second program which DHST supports in partnership with the International Union of Biological Sciences and the International Union for Quaternary Research, also turns on “local” languages. It addresses climate education and is web-based after the fashion of the superb Embryo Project, winner of last year’s Hazen Prize. Known as “Trans-disciplinary Research Oriented Pedagogy for Improving Climate Studies and Understanding,” TROP-ICSU is directed at K-12 teachers in all languages. Its goal is to get beyond stand-alone climate education and integrate the topic into core curricula in science, mathematics, and the social sciences. Its short modules are targeted at appropriate age and grade levels, and often signal the local impacts of climate change, which like geology, has historical dimensions.  Of note, the site has a good deal of history of science and ecology in the videos, animations, and pedagogical tools. The site could use even more history of science content and this is one area where historians of science and graduate students could engage international audiences.

The great success of HSS Utrecht was a reminder of the international dimensions of our field and of the necessity of continued engagement with the diverse cultures and languages of the world. History of science remains a vital intellectual field with much to offer students and practitioners of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Mike Osborne is an Emeritus Professor of History of Science at Oregon State University. He is the President of the Division of History of Science and Technology (2017–2021) of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and in 2020–21 will be President of IUHPST as a whole.

Teaching the History of Science through In-Class Games?

by Mark Carnes (Barnard College)

“Let’s teach the history of science through games!”

When Frederick Purnell proposed this idea to me in 2003, I laughed.

For six or seven years, I had been pioneering Reacting to the Past, a pedagogical initiative where college students play complex games, set in the past, their roles informed by classic texts: democratic Athens following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War; revolutionary France before the Terror—subjects like that. Over several weeks, students­—taking the role of historical figures—debate key issues while the instructor—reconfigured as Game-master—sits in the back, enforcing rules and evaluating oral presentations and written work.

But students couldn’t debate known scientific facts. Or so I believed. “How,” I asked Purnell, “can you persuade anyone that the earth doesn’t move?”

“Aristotle did it for 2000 years,” Purnell retorted. “And, using Aristotle, students can still do it.”  He then announced that he wanted to design a Reacting game based on the trial of Galileo: students assigned to the conservative faction would indeed argue that the earth doesn’t move.

I had doubts, but Purnell had strong credentials as a Renaissance scholar and chair of the philosophy department at Queens College. And he told me to read Aristotle’s On the Heavens.

I relented, and Purnell went to work. He set the game in the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome in 1632. Students would be divided into three factions: conservatives, Linceans—supporters of Galileo—and moderates, who embraced the new science but sought to restrict its dissemination. About half of the students would serve as inquisitor cardinals; another half would provide testimony to the Holy Office—as professors of mathematics and natural sciences or as specialists on canon law, papal finances, or foreign policy.

Because designing a Reacting game is onerous—often a published game consists of a quarter-million words of historical essays, roles, and supporting texts—Purnell invited Michael Pettersen, then chair of physics at Washington and Jefferson College, to join him as co-author and designer of the game.

In 2005, however, Purnell died, suddenly and tragically.  Pettersen asked me to help him complete the game.  I agreed. Within two years, we had completed a prototype of the game and tested it with our students.  Immediately we discovered the wisdom of Purnell’s initial premise. Students assigned to the conservative faction had a far easier time making their case than did the Linceans, who assumed it would be easy to prove what everyone knew. The conservatives, however, merely articulated Aristotle’s ingenious arguments and employed his demonstrations to prove the fixity of the earth.  During the early phase of the game, as in history, the conservatives had a distinct advantage.

More important, the game elicited the same sorts of intellectual debates that reverberated in early seventeenth-century Rome. The game illustrated, often in vivid and unforgettable ways, the complex intersection of science, religion, politics, international relations, economics, and other factors. Pettersen and I finished and published the game; now it is used in scores of colleges and universities.

In the meantime, another team of scholars had begun working on a Reacting game on Darwin and evolution. They rejected building it around the Scopes Trial, because the scientific arguments on both sides were so poor in that case. Instead, they located the game in London in 1864, as the Royal Society debated whether to give Darwin the Copley medal—its most prestigious award. Religious issues figured in the debate, of course, but the most important debate focused on Baconian induction, to which the Royal Society was committed. In the game—and in the real Royal Society—the central debate was whether Darwin relied on induction—and solid evidence—to prove his theory or whether the Origin of Species was based on deductions which, however brilliant, were scientifically unproven.

These two projects paved the way for an NSF grant to create shorter science games for college classes. David and Susan Henderson, professors of chemistry at Trinity College and Quinnipiac, respectively, designed a game on acid rain in Europe in the 1970s. David Henderson created another on climate change set in Copenhagen in 2009. Both games have been published.

“Game-master” Mark Carnes meeting with students/game-participants following a session of the Reacting game, Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism, 1862–1864, at Barnard and Columbia.

“Game-master” Mark Carnes meeting with students/game-participants
following a session of the Reacting game, Charles Darwin, the Copley,
and the Rise of Naturalism, 1862–1864, at Barnard and Columbia.

Additional games available for test play include the following:

  • the debate over whether Pluto is a planet;
  • the causes of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854;
  • the 1860 Karlsruhe Conference on the foundations of chemistry;
  • the 1927 Solvay Conference on the nature of reality;
  • Alan Turing and artificial intelligence in Manchester in 1949;
  • the 1994 debate in Congress (among the FDA and CDC) over cholesterol and public health;

More games are in even earlier stages of design.

Now used at over 500 colleges and universities (see the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2019), Reacting is arguably the most radical of the active-learning pedagogical innovations. Historians of science have good reason to be skeptical. Nevertheless, considerable research has shown that Reacting engages students; improves speaking, writing, and critical thinking skills; and generates a strong classroom community.

But does Reacting add to students’ understanding of the history of science? Is it worth all the gamey fuss?

Yes, because Reacting teaches our most important lesson. When we give lectures and write books on the rise of scientific paradigms, we make the story as clear and clean as possible, lest students become confused.  Consequently, students come to assume that the advance of science is inexorable, that knowledge inevitably crowds out error.

But we know this assumption is not true.  Sometimes error persists for decades or—as in the case of Aristotle’s cosmology—for millennia.  And sometimes knowledge breaks through with stunning speed. The advance of science is profoundly contingent.

By playing a Reacting game, students perceive—indeed, they experience—how myriad forces impinge on the development and dissemination of new paradigms. They understand that history, even the advance of science, is not a steady, upward march, but a desperate groping for elusive truths.

For more information on Reacting, see Also check out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “How an Idiosyncratic Role-Playing Game Became a Popular Teaching Tool.”

Mark C. Carnes is a Professor of History, Barnard College, and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Playing Games Transform College (Harvard, 2014). This essay is dedicated to Frederick Purnell and Michael Pettersen, fine scholars and teachers whose scholarship and teaching were cut tragically short.