Article: From the Collections--Collecting Innovation in Science Education :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Steven Turner, Curator, National Museum of American History
Fig. 1. The Chladni plate was used to study acoustics in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. The pattern seen here was formed when the plate was set vibrating by a violin bow (see video). Courtesy of Steven Turner

Last year, a retired science teacher named Richard Zitto donated a wonderful collection of science teaching instruments to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (see my blog on the Museum's website). One of the great things about the Zitto collection is that it covers a span of nearly 120 years, from the 1850s to the 1970s. The instruments are almost exclusively from high school physics classes, and while it's tempting to think that teaching physics has always remained the same, the changes that occurred are obvious and really quite surprising.

For instance, Chladni plates (fig. 1), named after the early acoustic scientist Ernst Chladni, who first studied the remarkable patterns made by vibrating plates, were common in 19th-century physics classrooms, but completely disappeared in the early 20th century. The science didn't change, but something about the way it was taught did. You can find quite a few examples of this in the Zitto collection.

Fig. 2. The instruments used to teach "classical" physics in the 19th century had changed very little from those used in the 18th century. Courtesy of Steven Turner

All of the instruments in figure 2 were used in 19th-century science teaching (although it wouldn't have been called "science" at the time). Very few of these instruments actually measured anything and students were not expected to learn to do actual scientific experiments; science at this time still hadn't had much effect on the daily lives of most people. Instead, the goal of the "natural philosophy" classes where these instruments were used was to give students some exposure to basic scientific concepts and to present them in ways that were easy to remember.

By the 1880s, new science-based technologies like the telephone and telegraph began to transform American life. It was becoming apparent that future workers would need to understand and be able to apply scientific knowledge. Science suddenly mattered and there was a broad perception that the way Americans learned about science needed to change.

Fig. 3. The student laboratory instruments featured few frills and were made to withstand rough handling. The "inclined plane" apparatus (top) was a simplified version of a traditional European teaching instrument, but the "induction apparatus" (bottom) was a new design that indicates the growing importance of electricity. Courtesy of Steven Turner

The first steps toward this goal took place in the public schools of Boston, which had a long history of education reform. High school physics teacher A. P. Gage introduced what was then a radical idea--that students should be allowed to perform experiments themselves! The idea was just being tried in colleges, but Gage showed that it worked in high schools as well. He developed a new physics course based on the use of the student laboratory (fig. 3).

The instruments that Gage designed for his course constituted a new class of scientific apparatus. Up to this point most scientific instruments were made with beautifully polished wood and lacquered metal--features that would enhance the prestige of both the maker and the purchaser. Compared to these, the instruments that Gage designed for his students were crude and relatively inaccurate. But they were also inexpensive, rugged, and easy to use. When tradition-bound American scientific instrument makers declined to produce them, Gage started to make and sell them himself. Within a few years several new science education companies had sprung up in Boston. These firms later played a key role in advancing the use of student laboratories.

This is just one of the uniquely American scientific stories documented by the Zitto materials, now part of the Smithsonian Institution's rich science teaching collection.

To learn more:

"The Reluctant Instrument Maker: A. P. Gage and the Introduction of the Student Laboratory," Rittenhouse 18 (2004): 40-61.

From Prototype, February 2011

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