Why science and engineering need to remind students of forgotten lessons from history

Isaac Newton’s portrait. What can students learn from his life? Alessandro Grussu, CC BY-NC-ND

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion highlighting the need for incorporating social sciences in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines in order to foster creativity, increase empathy and create a better understanding of the human condition among scientists.

Unfortunately, however, all this talk hasn’t changed the reality on the ground.

As a researcher and teacher in biomedical engineering, looking at the fundamental functions of the human body, I feel that we in engineering (as well as other sciences) have done a disservice to our students. We have failed to connect them to the history of science through stories of scientists.

Our students, these days, have little knowledge about the giants on whose shoulders we all stand.

And yet there is strong evidence that students are more likely to develop an interest in science and pursue science education when engaged through narratives that tell a story.

Research also shows that such stories enable students in STEM disciplines to better understand and apply their classroom knowledge in real-world settings.

Missing piece in science learning

In one of my engineering classes, I discuss how fluids, such as air and blood, flow in the human body. These processes are critical to our health and well-being.

As I do that, I also discuss the associated discoveries made by many leading scientists. The seminal work of scientists such as Joseph Fourier, Daniel Bernoulli and Isaac Newton has transformed our world and tremendously improved our quality of life.

What do students know about Newton? cea +, CC BY

However, beyond the most famous anecdote about the falling apple leading to the discovery of gravity, I find that students in my class know little about Newton’s contributions. While students in my class may have a rich understanding of the Fourier transform (a fundamental mathematical relationship that forms the basis of modern electrical engineering), they literally know nothing about who Fourier was.

Research suggests that context and history play a strong role in connecting science and engineering theory with practice.

But despite studies highlighting the importance of storytelling and historical case study approaches, impersonal PowerPoint presentations dominate classrooms. Historical perspectives and rich stories are missing in such presentations.

Why it matters

As educators, we face tremendous pressures to pack technical materials into our courses. So why should we include history in our lesson plans?

First, history provides a compelling perspective on the process of scientific discovery. We have known through research that historical references can help students clear up common misconceptions about scientific topics, ranging from planetary motion to evolution.

Looking at the story of science over centuries enables students to understand that research and discovery are continuous processes. They can then see that the laws and the equations that they use to solve problems were discovered through long and sometimes painful processes.

The findings they arrive at today, in other words, are the fruits of the hard work of real people who lived in real societies and had complex lives, just like the rest of us.

Second, a sense of history teaches students the all-important value of failure in science. It also highlights the persistence of the scientists who continued to push against the odds.

Recent research suggests that by discussing the struggles and failures of scientists, teachers are able to motivate students. Indeed, the discussion of struggles, obstacles, failures and persistence can lead to significant academic improvement of students, particularly for those who may be facing personal or financial difficulties or feeling discouraged by previous instructors and mentors.

Learning from history

This dose of inspiration is particularly valuable for STEM students who face barriers in their academic work, either due to lack of financial resources or due to their gender or race.

The stories of past scientists are a reminder to them that history is an opportunity. Not all great discoveries were made by people who were at the very top of the socioeconomic pyramid.

Connected to the process of discovery and innovation is the fundamental notion of the multidisciplinary approach.

Students need to understand that this approach is not a creation of the 21st century. People have used the multidisciplinary tools of their time for hundreds of years. Johannes Gutenberg, for example, combined the flexibility of a coin punch with the mechanical strength of the wine press to invent the printing press, which created a profound global impact in disseminating knowledge.

The Gutenberg Press replica. Casey Picker, CC BY-NC-ND

Finally, a fundamental goal of modern engineering education is to create socially conscious engineering practitioners who have a strong sense of ethics.

Following an engineering education, individuals could go on to develop medical technology for resource-constrained settings, or work on stem cells or genetic engineering. The importance of ethics in any of these areas cannot be underestimated.

Case studies and history could be immensely valuable in teaching ethics. History provides strong evidence of how the environment around scientists was equally important in shaping their lives and discoveries. Lessons from history could provide insights into how to make ethical choices related to technology or engineering principles.

History, heritage and a holistic view of learning

The goal, in the end, is not to compromise on the rigor, or to focus exclusively on history and personalities, but to make the material more accessible through story-telling and connection with our common heritage.

By making students realize that they are part of a grand tradition of learning, success and failure, we might find that the goals of retention, inspiration, access and rich engagement with the material are closer than we realize.