In this lesson, students work alone or in groups to research the history of science and the experimental method in science by investigating the most significant scientific experiments conducted from ancient times to the present.
We take it for granted that knowledge comes from experience through the senses and that science flourishes through observation and experiment. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is credited with being the first person to articulate the idea that science can flourish through observations and experiments. He wrote in his famous work Novum Organum (The New Organon), "Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything." But scientists through the ages have been using the experimental method to better understand the natural world. For example, the Iraqi Muslim physicist Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) used experimentation to support his intromission theory of vision, which argued that rays of light are emitted from objects rather than from the eyes (1021 C.E.).
Though the way in which experiments are conducted, or the experimental method, has evolved over the centuries, the basic definition of an experiment remains the same. The word "experiment" comes from the Latin ex-periri, which means "to try out." In scientific inquiry, an experiment is defined as any method of investigating less-known fields, solving practical problems, proving theoretical assumptions, or confirming or disconfirming hypotheses.
Scientific experiments can lead to discoveries that add to our existing knowledge or revolutionize our understanding of what we know about the world. For example, in 2009, researchers created a robot scientist. The robot scientist recently conducted experiments that led to the discovery of simple but new knowledge about the genomics of the baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Ordinary baker's yeast is an organism that scientists often use as a model for understanding more complex life systems, so this was a significant discovery. (This was also the first machine to discover new scientific knowledge.) For an example of how the knowledge discovered in an experiment can revolutionize our way of thinking about the world, consider Copernicus’ mathematical presentation of and Galileo’s observation of heliocentrism.
In this activity, we are going to research famous scientific experiments from ancient times to the present and record the information in a Microsoft Excel timeline.
Note: Students can work alone or in groups to create the timeline. After the timeline is created, students can individually write a report outlining the steps of the scientific method taken by the scientist.
Preview the following websites, and add them and any others you may find useful to your Favorites list in Internet Explorer so that students can access them later.
Consult the following two websites for comprehensive, annotated lists of Internet resources on the history of science, including links to biographies, general histories of science, bibliographies, primary sources, Nobel Prize scientists, the Galileo Project, Islamic scientists, the complete works of Darwin, and much more. Students can use these sites as a starting point for more detailed research about particular scientists and experiments.
In this activity, you will research famous scientific experiments from ancient times to the present and record the information in a Microsoft Office Excel timeline.
Follow the steps below to guide your students through this lesson plan. See student handout links at the bottom of this post.
Have individual students select one scientist and his or her experiment from the timeline they created, investigate it in depth, and write a report that describes the scientist in his or her historical context (and what might be different today). For example, Galileo living in a geocentric world. Ask students to describe the experiment and outline the steps of the experimental method that were used in the particular experiment.
Ask students to create a second timeline that presents the history of experiments during the same time period from another perspective, using a different principle of selection. For example, they may choose to create a timeline of famous scientific experiments that were conducted by women, minorities, or scientists of a particular country or region.
Evaluate each timeline for accuracy, thoroughness, attractiveness, and creativity.
If students created their timelines in groups, have each group of students present its timeline to the class and discuss the differences among them. Why did some choose to include certain 20th century experiments and others did not? What reasoning did they use to decide which experiments to include and which to leave out? How does our historical perspective affect what we consider to be significant? How long will it take before we know which of the many significant 20th century experiments are the key or revolutionary ones? If students created their timelines individually, ask them to meet in small groups to compare timelines and have a discussion about them.
Software and materials needed:
Timeline student handout A
Timeline student handout B
Timeline of scientific experiments websites
Create a timeline using Microsoft Office Excel