Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/December 1881/An Experience in Science-Teaching


FOR the past two years I have had charge of a public school in Pennsylvania, and have endeavored to awaken in the minds of my pupils a love for and an interest in science, with especial reference to the truths and lessons of physiology and zoölogy. Perhaps my experience may not prove valueless or uninteresting to teachers and others.

The summer of 1878 was spent at Salem, at the Summer School of Biology connected with the Peabody Academy of Science, and, while there, the ideas on teaching gathered from Huxley, Mill, Bain, and Spencer, took a tangible shape; and I determined that classes in physiology that came under my charge should have the benefit of practical work so far as lay in my power to give it. In September of that year I organized a class in physiology, made up of young ladies and gentlemen between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. With this material I went to work. My plan was briefly this: Teach as many facts in this study and those connected with it as possible; then for direct use have the pupils get some idea, if but slight, of the progress of science, and develop mental discipline by pursuing the work according to the scientific method, so far as time and material will permit. To accomplish these results seemed to be worth striving for; and, without making any pretensions to exhaustive work, I followed a programme substantially as follows: A suitable text was provided, and, with this in hand and a human skeleton, we considered the location, use, form, structure, articulation, etc., of the bones; the same was done with many of the muscles, being aided in this by an excellent series of plates; the skin next claimed attention, and in succession followed the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems. During this time there were no regular recitations, but each scholar was free to ask any question on the preceding lesson to any member of the class he saw fit; in this way we took a cursory view of the human frame outside of the nervous and reproductive systems. After we had seen something of the mechanism in its entirety, and had a general idea of it, I chloroformed a cat and dissected it before the class; this was not performed in my regular school-room, but in a small room off, which had been used for recitations by one of my teachers. During the operation the class asked questions, and were at perfect liberty to discuss any topic connected with the subject, or to ask explanations concerning the structure or use of any part examined. The dissection did not aim to be exhaustive, the idea being more to clinch the facts which had before been given, and to present in a clearer light the form of the body interiorly. After this dissection the class recited from the text, and were aided with plates, specimens, and informal talks, through the whole course. After finishing the work another animal was procured, and several members of the class took turns in dissecting, sometimes several working at once and sometimes one only; here I endeavored to give the pupils their own way, the object being not to make skilled dissections, but to teach them to study nature at first hand. In this work they followed Foster and Langley as closely as possible. We then made a thorough review of the whole text, this work being supplemented by bringing before the class a few birds, some insects, a fish, some frogs, and a few tadpoles. The remainder of the term was spent in studying comparative physiology and anatomy. I followed out this course, with few modifications, with a number of classes, and never failed to interest them. There was but little attention paid to the nervous system, as I considered it too abstruse for the students. I will say, however, that, after spending some little time on the brain and spinal column of a cat and dog, a few of the pupils of their own accord worked out the nervous system of a crawfish in quite an admirable manner. The work done was, of course, far from thorough, and will bear no comparison to that performed in more pretentious institutions: it will be remembered that I was working under a school system which does not require physiology to be taught, that I had nothing to work with except what I myself furnished, and that, worse than all, I had a tremendous prejudice to combat.

Whether I was successful or not may be judged by the fact that some members of the class who went over the ground in this way now occupy their spare time in summer in making collections of the flora and fauna in their vicinity. I further noticed that in Latin and mathematics those pupils who were most interested in physiology were quicker and clearer observers, more accurate reasoners, and more just and keen in their criticisms, than those of equal caliber who had not taken the course.

I give this experience for what it is worth, hoping that, if it meets the eye of one teacher who has a class in physiology, and is teaching by the old method of exclusiveness, he will try the process above described (which is far from original), confident that he will meet with success beyond his most sanguine expectations.