Science & Education

, Volume 17, Issue 7, pp 717–749 | Cite as

Historical Experiments in Students’ Hands: Unfragmenting Science through Action and History

  • Elizabeth Mary CavicchiEmail author


Two students, meeting together with a teacher, redid historical experiments. Unlike conventional instruction where science topics and practices often fragment, they experienced interrelatedness among phenomena, participants’ actions, and history. This study narrates actions that fostered an interrelated view. One action involved opening up historical telephones to examine interior circuitry. Another made sound visible in a transparent air column filled with Styrofoam bits and through Lissajous figures produced by reflecting light off orthogonal nineteenth century tuning forks crafted by Koenig and Kohl. Another involved orienting magnetic compasses to reveal the magnetism of conducting wires, historically investigated by Oersted and Schweigger. Replicating Homberg’s triboluminescent compound elicited students’ reflective awareness of history. These actions bore pedagogical value in recovering some of the interrelatedness inherent in the history and reintroducing the wonder of science phenomena to students today.

Key words:

active learning conducting wire critical exploration electricity electromagnetism experiment guesswork historical reconstruction history of science Homberg integrated curriculum investigation Koenig, Kohl Kundt tube light Lissajous figure magnetism materials narrative Oersted orientation Piaget Schweigger science education sound teaching and learning telephone triboluminescence tuning fork 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.



I thank Kathleen Stevens and Richard Whitney for working observantly together in the lab and with history. James Bales created the possibility for this teaching experiment and enriched it with many ideas. Lab meetings and activities were supported by MIT’s Edgerton Center staff including Tony Caloggero, Amy Fitzgerald, Sandra Lipnoski, Edward Moriarty, Eileen Huang. Markos Hankin, Bill Sanford and Patrick Ragsdale shared lab experience and physics apparatus; Krystyn Van Vliet and Laura Trudel helped with chemistry materials. Deborah Douglas, Ben Weiss and Gil Cooke gave meaning to our visits in historical collections at the MIT Museum, Burndy Library, and MBTA Roslindale power substation. We were advised by David Pantalony for the tuning fork experiment, by Lawrence Principe for Homberg’s reaction, by Howard Fischer for Newton’s prisms, and Thomas Settle for Galileo’s work. George Smith and Bonnie Edwards of the Dibner Institute sponsored the course development. Constance Barsky discussed Aron’s pedagogical work and history with me. This manuscript benefited from comments by James Bales, Alain Bernard, Angela Kimberk, Alythea McKinney, David Pantalony, Roger Sherman and the reviewers. I thank the organizers of the Leeds IHPST 8 Conference for the opportunity to present this paper on July 17, 2005. For her mentoring in explorative teaching, I thank Eleanor Duckworth; for the thoughtfulness in their teaching with materials and history, I thank Fiona McDonnell, Bonnie Tai, Lisa Schneier, Petra Lucht, Peter Heering, Claryce Evans, Wolfgang Rueckner, Susan Collins, Ryan Tweney. Alva Couch, Alanna Connors, Phil and Roy Veatch are co-experimenters. This work is dedicated to the memory of Philip Morrison, who inspired it and delighted in hearing about each exploration made by Kathleen and Dick.


  1. Allchin D., et al. (1999), History of Science – With Labs. Science and Education 8:619–632CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arons A.B. (1982). Phenomenology and Logical Reasoning in Introductory Physics Courses. American Journal of Physics 50(1):13–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bagno E. et al (2000). From Fragmented Knowledge to a Knowledge Structure: Linking the Domains of Mechanics and Electromagnetism. Physics Education Research, American Journal of Physics Supplement 68: S16-S26Google Scholar
  4. Baird D. (2004). Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. University of California, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  5. Bell, A.: 1875–1876, Notebook by Alexander Graham Bell, from 1875 to 1876, The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC:
  6. Carman R.A. (1955). Kundt Tube Dust Striations. American Journal of Physics 23:505–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cavicchi, E.: 2006, ‘Faraday and Piaget: Experimenting in Relation with the World’, Perspectives on Science, 14(1), 66--96Google Scholar
  8. Cavicchi, E.: 2005, Weekly Journal and PhotosGoogle Scholar
  9. Cavicchi E. (2003). Experiences with the Magnetism of Conducting Loops: Historical Instruments, Experimental Replications, and Productive Confusions. American Journal of Physics 71:156–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cavicchi, E.: 1999, ‘Experimenting with Wires, Batteries, Bulbs and the Induction Coil: Narratives of Teaching and Learning Physics in the Electrical Investigations of Laura, David, Jamie, Myself and the Nineteenth Century Experimenters – Our Developments and Instruments’, Dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  11. Challoner J. (1995). The Visual Dictionary of Physics. Dorling Kindersley, Boston MAGoogle Scholar
  12. Chipman R.A. (1966). The Earliest Electromagnetic Instruments. US National Museum Bulletin 240:123–136Google Scholar
  13. Corn, J.: 1996, ‘Object Lessons/Object Myths? ‘What Historians of Technology Learn from Things’, in W.D. Kingery (ed.), Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies, Smithsonian, Washington DC, pp. 35–54Google Scholar
  14. Crawford E. (1993). A Critique of Curriculum Reform: Using History to Develop Thinking. Physics Education 28:204–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Conant J.B. (eds) (1957). Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  16. Crowell A.D. (1981). Motion of the Earth as Viewed from the Moon and the Y-Suspended Pendulum. American Journal of Physics 49(5):452–454CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Davis D.: 1842 (1857), Manual of Magnetism, Palmer and Hall, Boston MAGoogle Scholar
  18. Devons S., Hartmann L. (1970). A History-of-Physics Laboratory. Physics Today 23(2):44–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Duckworth E. (2005). Critical Exploration in the Classroom. The New Educator 1(4):257–272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Duckworth E. (2001) “Tell Me More”: Listening to Learners Explain. Teachers College Press, NYGoogle Scholar
  21. Duckworth, E.: 1999, ‘Address’, unpublished transcript, Institute on Teaching and Learning (with Eleanor Duckworth), Miquon School, Conshohocken PA, January 22–23, 1999Google Scholar
  22. Duckworth, E.: 1991, ‘Twenty-Four, Forty-Two and I Love You: Keeping it Complex’, in E.␣Duckworth (ed.), `The Having of Wonderful Ideas’ and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, Teachers College Press, NY 1987/1996Google Scholar
  23. Fagen, M.D., (ed.): 1975, A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System, Early Years (1875–1925), 1, Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., NYGoogle Scholar
  24. Faraday M. (1821). Historical Sketch of Electro-magnetism. Annals of Philosophy 18:195–200Google Scholar
  25. Ganot, A.: 1863, Ganot’s Elementary Treatise on Physics Experimental and Applied, E.␣Atkinson, trans. (ed.), William Wood, NY, 1899Google Scholar
  26. Gooding D. (1990). Experiment and the Making of Meaning: Human Agency in Scientific Observation and Experiment. Kluwer Academic Pub., DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  27. Gorman M., Kirby Robinson J. (1998). Using History to Teach Invention and Design: The Case of the Telephone. Science and Education 7:173–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hammer D. (1994). Epistemological Beliefs in Introductory Physics. Cognition and Instruction 12:151–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hammer D. (1995). Epistemological Considerations in Teaching Introductory Physics. Science Education 79: 393–413CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hawkins, D.: 1990, ‘Defining and Bridging the Gap’, in E. Duckworth et al. (eds.), Science Education: A Minds-On Approach for the Elementary Years, Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., Hillsdale NJ, 1990Google Scholar
  31. Heering, P.: 2003, ‘History – Science – Epistemology: On the use of historical experiments in physics teacher training’. in W.F. McComas (ed.), Proceedings of the 6th International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group meeting. (Denver,USA). [File 58 on CD ROM from IHPST.ORG.]Google Scholar
  32. Heering P. (2000). Getting Shocks: Teaching Secondary School Physics through History. Science and Education 9:363–373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hoddeson L.H. (1971). Pilot Experience of Teaching a History of Physics Laboratory. American Journal of Physics 39:924–928CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Holton G. (2002). The Project Physics Course, Then and Now. Science and Education 12:779–786CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Homberg W. (1693). Nouveau Phosphore. Memoires de L’Academie Royale des Sciences X 1730:445–448Google Scholar
  36. Hughes-McDonnell, F.J.: 2000, ‘Circuits and Pathways of Understanding: “I can’t believe we’re actually figuring out some of this stuff”’, Dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  37. Inhelder, B., Sinclair, H., & Bovet, M.: 1974, Learning and the Development of Cognition, S. Wedgwood, trans., Harvard University Press, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  38. Koenig R.L. (1889). Catalogue des Appareils D’Acoustique. Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  39. Kohl M.: 1910, Physical Apparatus/Vol. II. Apparatus and Supplies for General Use. Introduction to Physics. Mechanics. Wave Theory. Acoustics. Optics. Heat. Meteorology. Cosmology, vol II & III, Chemnitz, Berlin, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  40. Kipnis N. (1996). The ‘Historical-Investigative’ Approach to Teaching Science. Science and Education 5:277–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mayer A.M. (1878). Sound: ...Experiments...for the use of students. Appleton and Co., NYGoogle Scholar
  42. McEwan, N.: 1988, ‘Charles Williams, Jr., Boston, Mass.: An early significant telegraph instrument maker, 1850–1870s’, html
  43. McGinnis J.R., Oliver J.S. (1998). Teaching about Sound: A Select Historical Examination of Research. Science and Education 7:381–401CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McKinney, A.W.: 2004, ‘Shaping history: Five students, three artifacts, and the material, social and economic lives of late nineteenth-century butter-makers’, Dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  45. Morrison, P.: 1985, ‘Knowing Where You Are’, in P. Morrison (ed.), Nothing is Too Wonderful To Be True, American Institute of Physics Press, Woodbury NY 1995Google Scholar
  46. Oersted J.C. (1820). Experiments on the Effect of a Current of Electricity on the Magnetic Needles. Annals of Philosophy 16:273–276Google Scholar
  47. Pantalony D. (2005). Rudolph Koenig’s Workshop of Sound: Instruments, Theories, and the Debate over Combination Tones. Annals of Science 62:57–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pantalony, D.: 2002, ‘Rudolph Koenig, Hermann von Helmholtz and the birth of modern acoustics’, Dissertation, University of Toronto, Toronto, OntarioGoogle Scholar
  49. Piaget, J.: 1926 (1983), The Child’s Conception of the World, J. and A. Tomlinson, trans., Rowman & Allanheld, Totowa NJGoogle Scholar
  50. Piaget, J.: 1936 (1954), The Construction of Reality in the Child, M. Cook, trans, Basic Books, NYGoogle Scholar
  51. Pickering E.C. (1869). On the Experiment of Lissajous. Journal of the Franklin Institute 87:55–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Pickering E.C. (1873). Elements of Physical Manipulation. Houghton, Boston MAGoogle Scholar
  53. Prescott G.B. (1878). The Speaking Telephone, Talking Phonograph and other Novelties. D Appleton & Co., NYGoogle Scholar
  54. Schneier, L.: 1995, ‘Apprehending Poetry: A Case Study of a Group of Six High School Students’. Dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  55. Schweigger, J.S.: 1834, ‘On a general Electro-Magnetic and Magneto-Electric Formula’, American Journal of Science 26(1), 356–359Google Scholar
  56. Steinberg R. (2000). Computers in Teaching Science: To Simulate or not to Simulate. American Journal of Physics, Physics Education Research Supplement 68:537–541Google Scholar
  57. Stevens, K.: 2005, ‘Lab Journal’ for SP 726Google Scholar
  58. Teichmann J. (1999). Studying Galileo at Secondary School: A Reconstruction of His ‘Jumping-Hill’ Experiment and the Process of Discovery. Science and Education 8:121–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Turner S. (1996). Demonstrating Harmony: Some of the Many Devices Used to Produce Lissajous Curves before the Oscilloscope. Rittenhouse 11:33–51Google Scholar
  60. Tweney, R.: 2006, ‘Discovering Discovery: How Faraday Found the First Metallic Colloid’, Perspectives on Science, 14(1), 97--121Google Scholar
  61. Tyndall, J.: 1867 (1889), Sound, Appleton and Co., NYGoogle Scholar
  62. Van Heuvelen A. (1991). Learning to Think Like a Physicist: A Review of Research-Based Instructional Strategies. American Journal of Physics 59:891–897CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Venville G., Wallace J., et al. (2002). Curriculum Integration: Eroding the High Ground of Science as a School Subject?. Studies in Science Education 37:43–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Venville G., Wallace J., et al. (2000). Bridging the Boundaries of Compartmentalized Knowledge: Student Learning in an Integrated Environment. Research in Science and Technological Education 18:23–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Volta, A.: 1800, ‘On the Electricity Excited by the Mere Contact of Conducting Substances...’, Philosophical Transactions, 90, pt. 2, 289–311Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dibner Institute for the History of Science and TechnologyMITWoburnUSA E-mail:

Personalised recommendations