1 Introduction

There is little doubt among those interested in science curriculum reform that a robust and authentic science program must contain elements of the nature of science if students are to understand and appreciate the scientific enterprise both as content (the facts of science) and process (the generation and testing of truth claims in science). The nature of science (NOS) is closely related, but is not identical, to the history and philosophy of science (HPS). As used here, NOS is defined as a hybrid domain which blends aspects of various social studies of science including the history, sociology and philosophy of science combined with research from the cognitive sciences such as psychology into a rich description of science; how it works, how scientists operate as a social group and how society itself both directs and reacts to scientific endeavors (McComas et al. 1998).

The U.S. National Science Education Standards (NRC 1998), many of the curriculum recommendations from the U.S. states, and an increasing number of guidelines from non U.S. education authorities (McComas and Olson 1998) include aspects of the nature of science as essential elements in science instruction. The rationale supporting a definition of appropriate NOS content is much the same as for describing any required science content, but NOS presents some unique challenge to teachers, textbook authors and curriculum designers beyond that found with traditional content. First, NOS knowledge is not particularly accessible since the most complete and accurate description of how science and scientists function comes from a synthesis of the work of experts in the philosophy of science, the history of science, sociology of science and the psychology of observation. However, many of the descriptions, recommendations, concerns and analyses offered by those who examine the scientific enterprise are vast, deep and occasionally incomprehensible. As a result, the recommendations and descriptions coming from NOS experts as reported in original sources are not in a form appropriate for immediate inclusion in the K-12 science curriculum.

Second, most science teachers have had first hand experience with traditional science content knowledge and can make judgments about the value of new content, but most lack such experience with and knowledge of the nature of science. Therefore, making recommendations for the nature of science content that might play a role in science teaching must come from those with particular expertise in this area.

Science educators have sought to define the most useful, accurate and appropriate NOS content for inclusion in plans for science learning to address the question asked by Olson (1973) more than 30 years ago, “what knowledge is of most worth?” When making recommendations about the focus of instruction as we move into a standards-based science curriculum we must define what knowledge is most important; decide when it makes the most sense to include particular content elements in the curriculum, produce effective curriculum plans and design valid and reliable assessments of the resulting progress.

Encouragingly, there is convergence on a consensus view of key NOS ideas appropriate for inclusion in the K-12 science curriculum. Osborn et al. (2003), McComas (1998), Lederman (1998), and McComas et al. (1998) have suggested surprisingly parallel sets of NOS content goals for K-12 science teaching that do not oversimplify the nature of science itself or overburden the existing science curriculum. As an independent check on the emerging list of core NOS elements, McComas (2005) performed a content analysis of a set of current popular books focusing on the nature and/or philosophy of science. The list of core NOS ideas distilled from this study of books for the general reader (Table 1) not only stands on its own as the product of a grounded theory qualitative analysis but substantiates the consensus list, because of its high level of correlation with the key tenets suggested by others. One imagines that the debate about the ultimate nature of the list of core NOS notions will continue, but the need for such a set of ideas should be clear.

Table 1 A list of core NOS ideas appropriate to inform K-12 curriculum development, instruction and teacher education

2 Using historical examples to illustrate aspects of the nature of science

With knowledge of any list of key NOS tenets, the task might now logically shift to one of how to illustrate these key ideas to learners. As we will see in the brief literature review that follows, using historical instances, cases and vignettes to provide a context for or example of is a recommended and time honored strategy. However, there has been no organized effort to locate a variety of such examples and align them with big ideas in the nature of science to inform curriculum designer, textbook authors and, of course, classroom instructors.

This use of historical examples to support science learning is not new. In fact, the American Association for the Advancement of Science President’s Scientific Research Board Policies Commission in 1947 stated that “Much more use should be made of the history of science with its adventure and dramatic action, which appeal strongly to young people’s interests and arouse their imagination” (cited in DeBoer 1991, p. 132). The U.S. National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) feature and recommend the history and nature of science prominently. At the high school level, the Standards state that all students should develop an understanding of science as a human endeavor, should appreciate the nature of scientific knowledge, and have a view of the historical perspectives that have resulted in scientific discovery.

Scientist and President of Harvard James Conant advocated the view that students could learn much about how science functions by having students read and discuss historical cases. Conant (1948) developed a series of case studies based on historic scientific discoveries—typically those from the 17th through 19th centuries—and believed that by exploring these authentic examples, students could discover important lessons about the practice of science.

Klopfer and Cooley (1961, 1963) expanded on the strategy developed by Conant and wrote a series of history of science case (HOSC) studies for secondary students (1964–1966). The proposed series of booklets featured selected readings extracted from primary sources on topics such as the development of ideas related to the halogen elements, cells, bio-electricity and the speed of light. Students were to read the historic account and in many cases repete aspects of the specific discovery. Regrettably, not all of the proposed booklets were published even though Klopfer and Cooley showed that “students who study under the HOSC instruction method attain a significantly greater understanding of science and scientists ... than those who do not” (p. 39). Harvard Project Physics (Rutherford et al. 1970) is probably the most well known of the formal projects stemming from a case approach. Here, historical elements were featured prominently and students were expected to form their own conclusions about the work of scientists. More recently, proposals have been made that include the use of cases and historical examples (Lochhead and Dufresne 1989) in science instruction or in teacher education (Devons and Hartman 1970; Teichmann 1986; Irwin 2000 and others).

Even where several of these strategies and programs showed some success in helping students understand the human side of science, they resulted in surprisingly little long-term impact on the science curriculum. Most current texts include historical examples more as an afterthought than an instructional imperative. Students may read a short inclusion about the life of Darwin, Newton or Rutherford, but rarely do these textbook inclusions extend beyond the most basic details nor are they typically used to make substantive points about the nature of science. The question remains as to whether educators fail to see the value in these methods, lack the understanding of how to apply these strategies in the classroom, or simply do not know that they exist.

Past plans that incorporated NOS into science instruction required major changes to the curriculum and a high degree of training for the teachers. Perhaps a more effective and acceptable approach would be to assist teachers in weaving NOS into the existing curriculum while providing them access to specific examples from the history of science aligned to key nature of science tenets. It is this second goal that framed the study reported here.

3 Method

This study focused on two basic questions:

  1. (1)

    What kinds of examples to illustrate important aspects of the nature of science are provided and from what scientific domains are examples drawn by authors of recent popular books focused on the nature of science?

  2. (2)

    What historical examples included in recent popular books on the nature of science can be linked to important NOS ideas?

To address these questions, recent books written for general readers on the topic of the nature of science were located by searching key terms in lists of books-in-print and through a solicitation of suggestions of such works from members of the science education community interested in and knowledgeable about the nature of science.

The task of locating such exemplars is open ended since the source material could consist of almost any account of the history of science produced in a variety of form so the following guidelines were developed to guide the search. Appropriate source material would have a high level of accessibility (the language used and examples included must be understandable to those in secondary school). They must be of appropriate scope (the book must focus on the whole of science as a unified pursuit not just on one domain of science). The books much be targeted for the general reader so that the examples used might be accessible to the target audience (such books are often called “trade” books). They must be written by experts (at least as justified by the credentials offered on the book itself and through an internet search). Finally, the books to be analyzed must be recent. Books from the past 15 years were deemed most appropriate for inclusion in the study since they are most likely to feature the most up-to-date and accurate descriptions of knowledge generation science. Our interpretations of how science functions has changed through time (Duschl 1985) and, as with any science content, our obligation is to ensure that what we offer students is both relevant and accurate.

Slightly more difficult was the determination of a distinction between books designed for the general reader and those written primarily for use as texts in philosophy or history of science courses. This decision was made based on the level of language, book length, and the stated purpose of the book as described on web sites and/or in the book itself. Works on the philosophy of science clearly designed as college texts were explicitly excluded from the analysis in favor of books designed to introduce big ideas in the philosophy of science to interested laypersons. Also excluded were books that had some other central purpose, such as to tell the story of a particular scientific discovery, although much could be learned about knowledge creation in science by examining such works.

These elements were considered jointly, and a final set of books (Table 2) was selected for analysis.Footnote 1. This selection was made in spite of a realization that no set of books, even those meeting all the stated criteria, would satisfy everyone for a variety of reasons.

Table 2 Books designed for general readers addressing aspects of the nature of science and reviewed for this study

Following the selection of books, a qualitative analysis of each text using three investigators each of whom was knowledgeable about the nature of science particularly with reference to the list of stated key NOS tenets (Table 1). Each investigator read the set of books and independently noted each historical element used to exemplify points about the nature of science. The basic rule followed in this pursuit was that a person or event had to be linked specifically by the author of the book to an aspect of the nature of science rather than used only to tell some aspect of the history of science. Several of the books used this second approach in which a time line of the progress and personalities was provided without specific references to what these historical anecdotes revealed about how science functions in any detailed fashion.

An example of a “linked” element is discussed below and included as a data point in this study. Chalmers (1999) tells the story of how Galileo quantified his observations by recording data. He observed and recorded the positions of the moons or “starlets” of Jupiter to demonstrate that they were really orbiting the planet and were carried along with it in its own orbit around the Sun. This was a very important observation that would be hard to interpret in any way except to show that these moons were orbiting another heavenly body—just as Galileo hoped to convince doubters that Earth, too, was orbiting the Sun. The author tells this story to make the point that observation (as empirical evidence) is vital in science—an important nature of science lesson. Had the story been told only to show the historical development of science without the accompanying link to a NOS idea such as the role of observation, it would not have been noted for purposes of this study.

Data collection proceeded until all of the historical examples related to lessons about the nature of science were gathered from each targeted book. Each example was recorded only once even if it was included by several authors. The lists were compared to ensure that all NOS-linked historical elements had been extracted. There was no need to generate a degree of inter-rater reliability since the goal was to locate and extract all historical elements from the books; having two individuals work on this task simply ensured the few, if any, such elements would be overlooked.

At this point, the range of illustrations and examples and range of NOS lessons was examined to reach conclusions about the nature, extent, and focus of the examples. This determination was made in a subjective fashion by examining the list holistically while looking for any patterns in the examples used, the science disciplines represented and the variety of the illustrations provided. The master list of core NOS principles was used to organize and report specific historical examples that could be used to exemplify a particular core NOS issue. Through this process, the examples were removed from their initial context in the book and considered solely for their ability to exemplify one or more of the cores NOS principles. This final step is necessary to generate a set of practical conclusions that would not be possible if the examples were provided only in their original context.

4 Findings and discussion

Two basic questions guided this investigation: what is the nature of the examples found and how might the examples found be aligned with key issues in the nature of science?

4.1 The nature of historical examples

To address the first question, a list of unique historical examples was generated by listing each example the first time it appeared in any book. Although three authors discussed the geoscience example of Alfred Wegener’s proposal of continental drift, it is included only once in the list. This master list of almost 80 unique historical examples was consulted to determine what scientific disciplines were represented; the distribution appears in Table 3.

Table 3 A list of scientific disciplines represented by the historical examples extracted from a set of eight current books about the nature of science

The greatest number of unique examples providing insight into the NOS comes from the physics (37%). When added to astronomy, the percentage of examples from the physical sciences increases to 59% of the total. This is perhaps not surprising given the lengthy history of both physics (with the iconic scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Einstein frequently mentioned) and astronomy (with the centuries old debate regarding the place of the Earth in the solar system featured in various of the texts).

While these examples can be used effectively to enhance lessons about specific NOS tenets, there is at least one danger in using vignettes so prominently from one just discipline. Students must be provided opportunities to see that the core NOS ideas transcend the traditional boundaries of the scientific disciplines. Perhaps by extending the range of examples to involve as many science disciplines as possible students would be more likely to gain a view of the unity of science, appreciate the shared philosophical connections and avoid thinking of the governing principles as related only to some of the disciplines. Also, the subtle distinctions in the way that one science operates when compared with another should be discussed. For instance, the highly experimental focus of physics and chemistry does not apply so readily in sciences such as biology and geology. Hence, one of the reasons why some members of the public reject evolution is that it cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory in the same fashion as can many notions in the physical sciences.

Another interesting finding is that the vast majority of the examples come from older rather than contemporary historical accounts. Einstein, Newton, Galileo and Darwin are frequently cited to demonstrate lessons in the nature of science. Of course, these are fruitful and telling examples, but students should also be given opportunities to see that the rules of the “game” of science operate in much the same fashion today as they have in the past.

Of course there are important distinctions in the way that science now operates. Rather than being the pursuit of the lone savant engaging in research as a hobby, much of science today is institutionalized both in support of profit motives in the commercial realm and in the pursuit of tenure in universities.

It is quite likely that these contemporary accounts are harder to come by since the story of current scientific knowledge development is still being written, but authors and educators should attempt to show how the work of classic scientists is mirrored in the day-to-day experiences of all scientists. By hearing only about the work of true scientific geniuses students may fail to recognize that all scientists are governed by and work within a shared philosophical tradition. Even though the nature of scientific work has changed considerably, the key NOS elements guiding science still prevail; the “rules” of the game of science are much the same from one laboratory and scientist to another.

4.2 Linking historical examples to NOS tenets

The second goal of this project to was to align the unique examples with key NOS tenets. This was essentially accomplished though inspection as each historical example was evaluated for the best fit to one of the core NOS elements. The examples provided in the texts were decoupled from the context originally designed by the author. In some cases, the linking activity resulted in an example being used for a purpose other than that originally designed by the author.

Of course there can be no single correct linkage since it is clear that occasionally a single example can illustrate several key NOS concepts effectively. Consider the classic story of August Kekule, a chemist, who puzzled over the structure of benzene. He reported that in a flash of insight he saw a snake biting its tail and proposed that the benzene molecule was circular. Okasha (2002) tells this same story, but uses it to make the point that the new model must be tested against the available data. Derry (1999) offers a more extended version and likewise uses the example to talk about how well the new model explained things with respect to the evidence. It is revealing that neither of these authors focuses much on the role of creativity in science, and so did not choose this example to demonstrate the necessary link between discovery and creative thinking. Wolpert (1994), as a contrast, included an entire chapter on creativity in his book, but he uses the story of Kekule and quotes Pasteur who is reported to say that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Here, the chance dream of a snake biting its tail could only have come about because of Kekule’s prior intellectual background and thinking about the issue. Wolpert (1994 p. 63) states, “... such insights are far from typical and are invariably dependent on an enormous amount of earlier work and preparation.”

Each of the examples extracted from the books was linked, if possible, to one of the key NOS ideas. The product of this linking activity is shown in Table 4. This table provides a reference to the book but lacks page numbers to the historical vignettes cited. This was done primarily because the link between the example and NOS tenet has been established by the researcher for purposes beyond that designed by the original author. There was, therefore, a desire not to make implications for the example beyond the authors’ original intention; the secondary application of each example is solely the responsibility of the author of this paper. Also, many of the vignettes included in these books are somewhat incomplete and those who might use them for the purpose of illustrating a specific NOS idea would be well advised to seek out a fuller version of the historical account in question. Finally, there is no suggestion that these are all of the examples that might be used to enhance understanding of the key NOS principles. Although each of the NOS tenets is well supported by illustrations from the books in question, undoubtedly there are more relevant historical vignettes.

Table 4 Historical examples and anecdotes extracted from popular books on the nature of science aligned with key nature of science principles

5 Implications and conclusions

The goal of this project was to examine a specific set of books on the nature of science and to extract and analyze historical examples that might be valuable in helping to make clear certain key NOS concepts. Along with the examination of the nature of the historical examples used in these books, the result of this endeavor has been to provide the science education community with a robust and fairly complete set of historical vignettes. These vignettes should prove useful in helping to communicate certain key aspects of the nature of science and, in turn, provide students with both an engaging and accurate view of the underlying nature of science. However, the mere coupling of an example with a nature of science concept in instruction is necessary but likely not sufficient.

5.1 Using historical examples in NOS instruction

Learners benefit from clear examples of phenomena and ideas. Given the sophisticated and abstract nature of much nature of science content, those involved in communicating such concepts, are advised to use illustrations to help make the lessons as concrete as possible. Surprisingly, even in the books examined, several sophisticated philosophical principles included were not accompanied by historical vignettes. To cite several such cases, Cromer (1993) discusses Bacon’s emphasis on observation measurements, experimentation, hypothesizing and deduction. Thompson (2001) stated that Francis Bacon insisting that all knowledge should be based on evidence and experimentation and Sardar and Van Loon (2002) included much material of a philosophical nature, such as Popper’s notion of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion, but none provided historical examples that might have made these concepts easier to grasp.

5.2 The level of explicitness in NOS instruction

Related to the inclusion of historical examples in science teaching is the issue of explicitness with respect to nature of science instruction. There is clear evidence from Lederman (1998), Khishfe and Abd-El-Khalick (2002) and Clough (2006) that students do not learn relevant NOS lessons through examples alone or as a consequence of having teachers refer casually to elements of the nature of science. It is vital that complex ideas such as those in the NOS be accompanied by an explicit discussion of the underlying principle rather than simply assuming that the message has been adequately communicated (Tao 2003).

In one of the books reviewed, the anthropologist Dunbar (1995) makes a strong case for the distinction between laws and theories by discussing the kind of science practiced by indigenous cultures. He shows that members of these groups fully understand the patterns in nature (i.e. the laws) and know when to hunt, fish, migrate, etc. However, he also makes the point that these individuals do not have an understanding of the reasons (i.e. theories) why the patterns in nature exist. Unfortunately, he never uses the labels “theory” and “law,” making this a good example of implicit NOS instruction. One can predict that the use of the example alone will not suffice and that without the use of the proper NOS labels as part of an implicit lesson on the distinction between laws and theories, students will fail to make the distinction between these two important NOS ideas. If students do not have an explicit opportunity to link the historical example with an NOS principle they will likely hear these accounts of science and consider them interesting but not particularly enlightening stories. Clough (2006) goes farther and reminds us many NOS concepts are already known to students as misconceptions so the job of the teacher is to engage not only in instruction but also in conceptual change teaching.

The study reported here represents only an initial foray into the rich world of the potential for historical vignettes as examples of the nature of science. Of course, the examples reported here do not represent all those that could or should be linked to NOS tenets nor are they necessarily the best examples that could be used. However, it is clear that effective examples and illustrations do exist and should be used in making concrete the core nature of science notions we wish to communicate to students. Incorporation of rich historical episodes into the science classroom can humanize science by raising instruction from the mere recitation of facts to its exploration as an authentic and exciting human adventure.