2012-2013

Teaching the history of science as a laboratory

What can you do with a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center? Just ask WPI Humanities and Arts Professor Constance Clark, who used her 2010 grant to pilot two new courses that are garnering rave reviews from students— and have the potential to become much larger research endeavors.

What can you do with an Educational Development Grant from the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center? Just ask WPI Humanities and Arts Professor Constance Clark, who used her 2010 grant to pilot two new courses that are garnering rave reviews from students—and have the potential to become much larger research endeavors.

When Clark decided to create the two new history courses, History of Evolutionary Thought and History of Life Sciences, she knew that she wanted to do something a little different. Opting to forego the traditional textbook approach, she instead hoped to give students authentic experiences by putting them in the shoes of scientists throughout history.

“My approach to the history of science is WPI’s approach: I want students to see science as a part of a culture, as a real thing, not just disembodied ideas floating around,” says Clark.

Clark relied on the Educational Development grant to purchase a collection of osteological specimens, skulls and skeletons, which are the centerpiece of the courses’ unique labs.

“The grant enabled me to design a series of labs that set students as investigators,” says Clark. “In one lab they acted as 18th century naturalists charged with examining and classifying unidentified specimens. In another they used skulls and skeletons from primates and hominids to make arguments about relationships among them.”

The students took their new roles well, eagerly delving into labs and talking with each other, even in courses of over 50 students. “They were very engaged and energized,” says Clark, “and the course evaluations were overwhelmingly positive, with many students citing the hands-on effectiveness of the labs.” Clark also believes the courses helped her improve as both an instructor and researcher.

“I’ve learned to ask open-ended questions and let students do the talking, instead of just probing for specific answers,” says Clark. “The course also informed my research in studying how best to communicate science to different audiences.” She has plans to take that research even further by seeking funding from external sources, including the National Science Foundation.

Clark also offers advice to other faculty on taking advantage of the Educational Grant grants:

Applying for a grant is an easy and straightforward process, and the Morgan Center provides a lot of advice and support. These grants are a great way to test new ideas, form interdisciplinary collaborations, and try out programs that can lead to bigger projects down the road.”

December 7, 2012

 
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