RE: [asa] The fight in Texas over evolution training inschools

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Wed Mar 25 2009 - 12:13:31 EDT

Answering Bill Powers' question about materials for science education that
make use of HPS, my first thought is of the Harvard Physics Project, which
was fairly popular 30 years ago. When fully used--that is, when used along
with the 6 accompanying readers (which printed historically important
scientific papers and lots of other interesting stuff, some of it from the
humanities) -- it made a lovely course along those lines.

Gerald Holton was an integral part of the group that did that, and his
subsequent text with Steve Brush, "Introduction to Concepts and Theories in
Physical Science," has some similarity with the old Harvard project, though
it's only a faint image of same without the readers.

For several years here at Messiah, I taught the intro physics course taken
by pre-meds and biology majors, among others. In the second semester, I
ditched some standard topics such as statics and heat, on the assumption
that what biology majors needed to know about thermodynamics could easily be
learned elsewhere or on their own, in order to make significant room for HPS
content. I set up an 8-week unit, complete with simplified versions of
classic experiments (such as Thomson's determination of e/m and the
calculation of Rydberg's constant from the hydrogen spectrum and making a
time-exposure photo of the Fresnel spot), devoted to modern physics (ie, old
and new quantum theory and special and general relativity). Most casual
students of physics (ie, non majors) learn those topics only minimally. I
believe that they are what physics now is really about, and I wanted my
science majors to see physics as a science, as a way of making sense of the
world as we find it. So, I taught those topics. But, in a different
manner. Instead of focusing on formulae and problem solving, except in labs
I did not do that. Rather, I focused on telling the story of modern physics
-- the story of the people and their ideas. Instead of a problem solving
exam, the students had 8 weeks to answer four essay questions, based on
readings assigned from materials on reserve in the library. (Examples: "Was
Einstein Right?" by Clifford Will, "Relativity and Its Roots," by Banesh
Hoffmann, an essay on fission by Otto Hahn, the wonderful Open University
booklet "Modern Physics and Problems of Knowledge" by Christian physicist
Russell Stannard, among many others.)

This isn't exactly what I expect others to do, but I do think that at least
for me (someone with teaching competence in basic physics and scholarly
competence in HPS) it was the right thing to do. Former students still talk
about it once in awhile, esp the film I showed in lab (instead of an
experiment that week), "The Day After Trinity," about Oppenheimer and the

I have sample syllabi and exams that can be sent upon request--but not
until next week at the earliest, since I will be out of town the rest of
this week.


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Received on Wed Mar 25 12:14:18 2009

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