The Distillation Chamber


Allison and Susan here, two graduate students in the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. This semester we’ve been expanding our journalism skills in a class that explores election coverage with the hope of getting to the heart of more citizen-oriented…

Interesting proposal from the Science Online community.


1. What do you propose to do?

Develop Science Concierge microgrant program within our existing science hub to motivate more and better interaction with science.

2. Is anyone else doing something like this now, and how is your project different?

Our interconnected annual conference,…
When you build a snow-house in the winter, you do not cut snow blocks and pile them upon one another until you have planned where the house is to be, how large it will be, and where you intend to have the door. When you build a raft in the spring, you do no nail it together so far from the pond that you can never get it to the water’s edge. When a woodman fells a tree, he plans which way he wishes it to fall before beginning to cut with his axe or saw. you would laugh heartily at a cook who mixed biscuits but forgot to heat the oven to bake them, or at a carpenter who came to his work without a hammer and a saw, or built a garage too short for a car. You can readily see how foolish it would be to being any of the these tasks without first making plans.

This paragraph opens the first chapter of Science Indoors and Out, written in 1930 for Grade 7 and 8 students in the province of Manitoba (at the time a province with a largely rural population and hard hit by the Depression). The chapter introduces the experimental and observational methods that will be used throughout the school year.

When talking about how textbooks are traditionally used in science teaching, they are usually described as dry, impersonal books for transmitting facts. I am constantly surprised though by early 20th century textbooks that, like this example, emphasize the experiences of students and often address them directly with personal pronouns. Many of these “traditional” texts make a significant effort to be engaging, active and relevant. They’re not always what we think they were.

Hensley, C.A.E, & Patterson, D.A. (1930). Science indoors and out.Toronto, ON: The educational book company. p. 1

Beautiful ghosts of astronomy past.

W.G. Evans, Chart of comets, star clusters and nebula, 1856


Beautiful ghosts of astronomy past.


W.G. Evans, Chart of comets, star clusters and nebula, 1856


In nature things happen according to unchanging laws and the contemplation of these laws, which is the study of science, should give us confidence to live our lives in the natural world. Human institutions, including governments, fail and disappoint us, but these laws are never broken or repealed. On the other we may not violate them without suffering unpleasant consequences.

These are the closing lines of the high school physics textbook Elements of Physics for Canadian Schools published in 1937. It’s striking to me not only for the rosy view of science (It will never let us down!) but for the strange understanding of scientific laws. Scientific laws are repeatable, predictable and observable patterns. Gravitational laws help predict, for example, the amount of gravitational force caused by different objects. Newton’s laws can predict how much acceleration an object will feel. Many of these laws are context dependent. Newton’s for example are excellent for most everyday situation but they are inaccurate when applied in very extreme situations. They are not, however, breakable in the sense of legal statutes. Scientific laws are merely descriptions relationships we can see and measure. Learning about them doesn’t provide rules  for anyone to follow (other than for how to solve mathematical relationships) and so there are no consequences for breaking them because there’s nothing to break.

Okay, so I don’t agree with the way a historical textbook talks about laws. So what? Turns out that this is a much more widespread understanding than I would have expected and it has an influence on how high school students understand what science is. I recently wrote about a study I did of Grade 10 students’ perceptions of the right type of people to do science. I was really surprised that the view from this old textbook was repeated by the students. It still seems to be repeated and passed down. One of the students said in his interview:

“When people take science they think of like strict rules that can’t be broken or anything. There’s laws to science, like conservation of energy, conservation of mass. So it’s like set down rules that you have to follow. If you don’t follow them you’re going to end up doing something weird or wrong. I guess people expect you to follow a set of rules that are set down for you, guidelines so that nothing out of the ordinary happens, nothing really weird or odd happens.”

That’s why I keep dusting off these old books. These ghosts of science education past—the traditions, beliefs and sometimes misunderstandings—are important not just for understanding history but for understanding why science education is the way it is today.

Merchant, F.W., & Chant, C.A. (1937). Elements of physics for Canadian schools. Toronto: Copp Clark. pp. 637-638.

I have always found encouragement rather than dismay in the multitude of opinions which cover the field of nature-study. The all bear testimony to the largeness and vitality of interest in this ‘problem of problems.’

Clifton F. Hodge, a professor at Clark University , made this comment in a 1907 article about the ever expanding opinions, approaches and rationales for nature-study (science education’s sibling and in some ways predecessor). I sat on a discussion panel for the radio program Skeptically Speaking last night about culture and traditions and spoke about how difficult change has been in science education, at least partly because of competing ideas and traditions. I needed a reminder today of Hodge’s optimism that a multitude of opinions can also be a sign of healthy discussion and interest. (The podcast of the episode will be available Friday, Nov. 25 at

Hodge, C.F. (1907). The established principles of Nature Study. Nature-Study Review, 3, 7-8.

Quoted in:

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2010). Teaching children science: Hands-on nature study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 175)

Opportunity is afforded [girls] to advance as far as the young men in study, and the sciences which have hitherto been considered as too difficult for them are as easy for them to acquire as that superficial knowledge and accomplishment to which hitherto their education has been confined.

This observation was written in 1850 by Frederika Bremer and recorded in her collected letters. It illustrates a changing view of what education should provide for girls. It can also challenge some of our assumptions about science and girls.

In Bremer’s time, formal education was changing and starting to become common. Boys’ education focused on classical subjects with the addition of some science for a modern touch. Classical history, Latin and Greek, however, were considered too difficult and inappropriate for girls. Science, on the other hand, was an excellent choice for them. It was academically challenging while also providing useful everyday information considered necessary for a woman’s life. Looking at the curricula for high schools in the Northeastern US between 1820-1842, the sciences were included in more of the girls’ schools than the boys’. Astronomy, for example, was offered in 50% of girls’ schools compared to only 33% of boys’. The case was similar for natural philosophy, chemistry, botany and natural history.

In the mid 19th century, views about science, education and girls were in some ways the reverse of what they are now. History and languages were considered male subjects and science more appropriate for girls. This should provide a little challenge to the idea of school subjects being naturally more interesting or easier for boys and girls. Those ideas are cultural and they change over time.

Bremer, F. (1924). America of the fifties: Letters of Frederika Bremer. A.B. Benson, (Ed.). New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation. p. 285.

As quoted in:

Tolley, K. (2003). The science education of American girls: A historical perspective. New York: RoutledgeFalmer. p. 42.

Physics is rich in stories of its great workers and of the discoveries they made. I have been able to take only an occasional backward glance at these pioneers, but I hope that some of my readers maybe thereby prompted to acquire fuller information from the school library or elsewhere. We value of scientific heritage all the more if we know something of the age-long effort by which it was acquired.

From W. Littler’s preface to the 1948 middle school textbook A Junior Physics. Littler was the Senior Science Master at Hele’s School, Exeter and author of several chemistry and physics textbooks. This textbook is denser in concepts and equations than similar modern texts for the same age group. As Littler’s preface shows though, he was concerned with more than just helping students memorize facts. He recognized the importance of the people who make up the story of physics. In each sections there is also an effort to ask students to apply the concepts to their lives and to relevant problems. The idea of making science engaging and relevant is, like many other ideas, not a new one. Unfortunately then, as now, these sections that emphasized context often were the first to go when pressures of assessment, time, teacher expertise, and resources closed in.

Littler, W. (1948). A junior physics. London: G. Bell and Sons. (p. vi)

A good textbook in science should broaden old interests and stimulate new ones. It should encourage experimentation, the making of field trips, and the consultation of additional books on topics that hold special interest. In this day of extravagance and waste a textbook in science should stress the need of conserving our natural resources—forests, minerals, wild life, soil and water. Our country is still young, but already we see our renewable resources being used up faster than they are replaced.

An important reminder that the past in science education is often not what we think it was. So many reform efforts open by comparing themselves to older methods that emphasized rote learning from textbooks but that past never existed. There was no wide spread movement arguing that science teaching should ever be that way. Sometimes it ends up happening that science is taught with a rote reliance on textbooks because of constraints such as budgets, available materials, teacher expertise, class sizes and more. Reform efforts need to remember that the challenge will never be in convincing people (teachers, schools, parents) that science should be active and exploratory. The challenge is in making sure that schools and teachers are not so limited by assessments, materials and budgets that they cannot enact the type of science education that has been advocated all along.

From Archibald Stouffer’s preface to the elementary science textbook Canadian Wonderworld of Science.

Knox, W., Stone, G., Meister, M., & Noble, D. (1940[1955]). Canadian wonderworld of science. Agincourt: Book Society of Canada. (p. 2)

Although biology is a very modern science, it has found its way into most high schools; and an increasingly large number of girls and boys are yearly engaged in its study. These questions might well be asked by any of the students: Why do I take up the study of biology? Of what practical value is it to me? Besides the discipline it gives me, is there anything that I can take away which will help me in my future life?

The answer to this question is plain. If the study of biology will give us a better understanding of our own bodies and their care, then it certainly is of use to us. That phase of biology known as physiology deals with the uses of the parts of a plant or animal; human physiology and hygiene deal with the uses and care of the parts of the human animal. The prevention of sickness is due in a large part to the study of hygiene. It is estimated that over twenty-five per cent of the deaths that occur yearly in this country could be averted if all people lived in a hygienic manner. In its application to the lives of each of us, as a member of our family, as a member of the school we attend, and as a future citizen, a knowledge of hygiene is of the greatest importance.

I couldn’t resist posting one more excerpt from the 1914 classic A Civic Biology. As I said in yesterday’s post, the inclusion of science education in schools was often driven by people interested in fostering social improvement. Science was seen as a modern way curing social problems.

Inevitably, though, this caused conflict because it was difficult to separate what might now be seen as medical hygiene (e.g., disease prevention) from moral hygiene (e.g., temperance and alcohol prohibition). Hygiene also held an uneasy place in science education due to later connections to eugenics and more practically because it took away time from what others saw are real science education (e.g., laboratory time and field work). There have been ongoing discussions for at least the past two decades about the purposes of science education. A Civic Biology illustrates that this situation of having multiple and sometimes conflicting purposes is nothing new. Science education has never known anything different.

Hunter, G.W. (1914). A civic biology. New York: American Book Company. (p. 15)

For further reading about the conflicts of purpose that have surrounded science education, see:

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2010). Teaching children science: Hands-on nature study in North America 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tolley, K. (2003). The science education of American girls: A historical perspective. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.