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Many times we insert a famous scientist into our curriculum to satisfy some state or district level requirement. The students learn about Einstein, Franklin, Galileo or maybe Marie Curie. However, there are thousands of others who had contributions that just might ignite a spark in some of our kids. I still cover the big 4 we mentioned but I also bring in some unique characters. John Dalton was a scientist who studied chemistry. He was actually the father of our modern atomic theory. But, he was also an avid bowler (who knew) and he kept a weather journal that helped form the basis of the weather forecasts for decades after he was gone.
There is a scientist who studied oxygen named Lavoisier. He convinced a lab assistant to get sealed in a bag so that they could measure the amount of moisture, oxygen and CO2 the assistant gave off. I think the assistant lived but barely. The experiments in the early days of chemistry are crazy and interesting. This is only one of a number of truly interesting stories.
There is a reason why in the Olympics or American Idol the producers tell us the family story of the contestant. It helps build interest. Making these science explorers come alive takes that kind of story. With the web those stories are much easier to find. If we follow the interest in the person up with the experiments and theories that the scientist contributed to our understanding you have the best of all possible science lessons…heart and conceptual understanding.
You can begin your search for interesting scientists here:
Once you have your favorites and know their stories you can branch out. I like to have a board of science directors. Students are allowed to recommend scientists to sit on our board of directors. We place their photos on the wall and provide all with a fact sheet about their lives. We may do a fact a day report in the class. The key here is to let the kids find some scientists that they think are interesting. I know they will find many more unique scientists than any net search will turn up.
One of my favorites was Empedocles, a Greek doctor, poet and philosopher. He hinted at the theory of natural selection in one of his poems and dabbled with the laws of attraction and repulsion. His theories were interesting. He cured a plague in one Sicilian city using good medicine. The residents of the city believed him to be a god. The rumor was that he sort of believed this god theory and committed suicide by jumping into a volcanic crater.
Whether you teach life, earth or physical science you can find some interesting characters who have contributed to our knowledge of science while doing relatively crazy things in their personal lives. The kids find it fascinating that Einstein had some average aspects to his life or that Ben Franklin was a bit of a ladies’ man. These tidbits of regular life make these giants of science more accessible to the students. The idea of selecting some to be our guiding board of directors means that the contributions of these great women and men will not be just a footnote in our lesson plans.