Some Lessons for Schools from the History of Science and Engineering


The history of the discoveries made by people using science and engineering  has some application to how we think about teaching science and engineering in K-12 schools.

In 1820 (April 21 to be precise), the Danish physicist, Hans Christian Ørsted was setting up his equipment by connecting some wires to a battery when he noticed that as soon as the wires and battery were connected, a magnetic compass that happened to lying near one of the wires, moved away from magnetic north. He repeated the process of connecting and disconnecting the wires while watching the compass. Every connection and disconnection created the same effect on the magnetic compass. 

After he had published his notes about the magnet, battery, and wire phenomenon, there began a flurry of activity all over Europe and North America on the part of curious and inventive minds who began to play with and explore this most interesting connection between electricity and magnetism (both  well-known but both also mysterious). 

In 1831, in the far away United States, Joseph Henry used the finding to rig a battery through a wire to a bell to cause a click in a distant part of the school in which he taught

. In Germany in 1833 the mathematician Christian Friedrich Gauss strung wires around his university and developed a code that could be used to send messages from building to building. Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke in London had stretched a wire from one train station to another and used it to signal the imminent arrivals and departures of trains (replacing piercing whistles and annoying drums used previously). By 1832, Joseph Henry had worked out a whole system for sending coded signals over wires for extended distances. He had much of the campus of the College of New Jersey (soon to be known as Princeton University) wired with the system with the help of his students.

Using the work done by Joseph Henry and others, Samuel Morse “invented” (“borrowed”, “stole”?) the electric telegraph and patented it in 1844.

In the space of 24 years the discovery of the connection between electricity and magnetism led to a world changing technology.

Financial news could now be sent instantly between cities, and — along with enhanced opportunities for insider trading — a new style of Corporation arose. Offices in far distant cities could be easily linked. The telegraphs strung beside the rail lines could synchronize departures and arrivals across entire countries.” (Electric Universe, 2005)

The pattern of the telegraph has been repeated over and over again. Investigators into the electrical properties of materials, leads to the observations such as the photovoltaic effect (observed in 1838) leads to many investigations and experiments that lead in many different directions including to semiconductors and the transistor (1948) and the modern computer connected by the World Wide Web.

Is there anything suggestive about the STEM story for schools?

I would suggest three interconnected principles at work in the history that have application to schools and schooling about STEM.

STEM investigations follow these principles and I suggest that when teachers are designing curriculum and instruction, these principles should be honored:

  1. A deep commitment to observation and willingness to be thoughtful to what is seen. How many other experimenters had seen the same phenomenon as Østed but had not thought to ask a question about it?
  2. A willingness to play; that is, mess around with what has been seen. Joseph Henry first applied the idea to electromagnets before he played with telegraphy. Ultimately, he built an electromagnet that would lift 1,500 pounds! The experimentation/playing taught him and his students lots about electricity; for example, that wires wrapped in silk (insulation), would improve the strength of the magnets.
  3. A commitment to the imagination. The first “telegraphs” would only send their signals a few yards. But imagination said, “if you can extend the distance, you can increase the range of communication.”  Imagination led to questions which led to the development of the electric relay that would permit coast to coast communication by the telegraph.




David Bodanis (2005). Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity. Crown Publishers, New York.



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