How does scientific progress occur? What is scientific truth? How does scientific knowledge shape the way we see the world around us? These are some of the meaty questions that the Grade 12 Honors Humanities group has been wrestling with this semester.
I was excited (and a bit nervous!) to launch this new class: Topics in the History of Science. While the overall focus of the class is researching and writing a 15-page historical research paper, we began our studies by diving headfirst into a very difficult text, the seminal Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s book is meandering, philosophical, and heady, and is by far the most difficult thing that the students have ever been asked to read. Kuhn’s most significant contribution is his term “paradigm shift”—a term so commonplace now as to be banal, but utterly radical and novel in 1962 when the book was published. Kuhn paints a picture of science that is not a linear and orderly march towards truth. He sees that the history of science is punctuated by revolutionary changes in worldview which are, in many ways, culturally-mediated.
This is challenging material, and I’ve been impressed at how the students have taken up these ideas (in between complaining about the reading, of course). Over the last few weeks they have moved into the second phase of the class, researching and writing their papers. I asked students to first pick a scientific discovery, theory, or major development from the 20th or 21st century, then research its history, and finally formulate a persuasive essay which relates this specific history to Kuhn’s ideas. Does this discovery fit within Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm shift? Why or why not? This is a very new skill for them—applying a specific theoretical framework to a topic—and one which I hope will position them well for their college studies.
This week I have been reviewing their annotated bibliographies, and I must admit that I’ve grown more and more excited to read their final papers! The students have been reading books and journal articles about a wide variety of topics such as chaos theory, shell shock (the WWI-era term for what we now call PTSD), dark matter, organ transplantation, cancer immunotherapy, and climate science. Some of these topics I am knowledgeable about, but for many of them, the student is now the official “expert” in the room! That is a very exciting place to be at this point. Next week they will begin the writing process, which many of them have been dreading. It is always hard to do something new for the first time—but, of course, it is the only way to gain new skills and experiences.
—Annie Paladino, High School Art and Humanities Teacher