“What Do Scientists Do?” Seeking Answers in the Alexander Graham Bell Papers at the Library of Congress

This guest post comes to us from Meg Steele, who works with K-12 educators at the Library of Congress.

What do scientists do? This simple prompt was central in one activity during the inaugural week-long Seminar for Science Educators held at the Library this summer. Twenty-five educators examined primary sources, and one secondary source, from the Library’s collections to generate possible answers.

The question was inspired by the science and engineering practices embedded within the Next Generation Science Standards, which suggest that science content will have more value to students when taught in context of these practices. We set out to see if the real work of professionals across the sciences could come to life with primary sources generated by and about Bell.

Bell Lyceum

Professor Bell in Lyceum Hall, Salem, addressing a party of scientific men in Boston
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a04702

First, with the focus question as a reference point, teachers in small groups used the Primary Source Analysis Tool to analyze an 1877 print featuring “Professor Bell in Lyceum Hall…” They generated observations, reflections, and questions, including questions about the work of scientists as depicted in the scene.

These questions prepared them for the next step: reading “Telephone and Multiple Telegraph,”  informational text from the Library’s website. Used effectively, secondary texts – whether a short article on a website, or a chapter from a nonfiction book, can help spur further inquiry, building a learner’s confidence and focus. For the teachers this summer, from a variety of science disciplines, the article confirmed hunches about chronology raised by the primary source, offered vocabulary for details they noticed, and provided a model for summary and synthesis. The article also dug a bit deeper into science content, enabling the group to start making natural connections to the science practices illustrated by the primary source.

Seminar participants analyze a primary source

With this foundation, and keeping in mind the focus question, each small group of teachers examined additional primary sources from the Bell collection, representing different points of view, different stages of Bell’s work, and different scientific practices.

  • A drawing from Bell’s notebooks spurred observations about planning investigations, using calculations and data.
  • A letter from Joseph Henry, then head of the Smithsonian, responding to a letter from Bell asking for advice, illustrated the importance of reaching out to mentors and connecting to a larger body of scientific discovery.
  • A circular from Western Union, a competitor of Bell Telephone, highlighting a patent dispute, crossed disciplines into economics and business, and underscored the importance of effective and timely communication in the work of science.

Teachers analyzed the items, generating lengthy lists of possible answers to What do scientists do? 

We shifted to thinking about educational practices and strategies, and invited the group to reflect and compare the experiences of reading a primary source with reading a secondary text, asking how they were similar, or different, and how they worked together. The teachers offered additional ideas of how they might pair primary and secondary sources effectively in their classrooms.

When exposure to the real work of scientists can sometimes be limited, how might you use primary sources generated by and about scientists to bring their work to life?

3 Comments

  1. Tom Bober
    October 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

    As someone who participated in this activity, I can say it was a great interplay of primary and secondary sources. I think there are teachers who want to use primary sources in their teaching but don’t know how they may fit with the secondary resources they are already using.
    This is a great model to draw ideas from.

  2. Mary Johnson
    October 15, 2014 at 11:59 am

    The sequence of strategies used here to answer the question “What do scientists do?” reflects such deep and thoughtful primary source curriculum planning! Thank you for providing both the explanation of the process and the links to resources. In this case, the teachers were the students, but these techniques would work equally well with students who don’t really have much of an idea of what scientists actually do. Through this activity, they ask additional questions that lead them to build their own knowledge of the work of a scientist. Moreover, they base those questions (and answers) on primary sources from one of the most fascinating scientists known to us. Great work!

  3. Karen Cox
    November 10, 2014 at 11:53 am

    The activity “What Do Scientists Do” left as an open ended question to be researched and explained by students is a wonderful lesson idea. You could take the basic format of this lesson and apply it to any scientific topic as a warm up to a lesson and also to add history into your science class as seen with the use of Alexander Graham Bell’s papers. I have been inspired to use this as a “Do Now” activity in my own classroom that can be further developed into an inquiry learning activity to develop or ignite some ideas in students about that particular topic and get them excited to learn. For example you could use Continental Drift Theory and start by giving your students the evidence used by Alfred Wegener and incorporate some of his writings and correspondence to answer the question “What Do Scientists Do?”.

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