Engaging Experiments: The Origins of Laboratory Instruction in the United States

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.

This talk by Sarah Reynolds, an assistant professor in physics and earth-space science at the University of Indianapolis, is part of Science, Incorporated: Constructing the Natures of American Modernization, a series of six lectures that unpick the diverse ways in which nature—and the study of nature—became entangled with the modernization of America, from the early origins of laboratory pedagogy to mineral prospecting by satellite.

Today the “lab class” is a standard feature of science coursework in high schools and universities across the country. This talk rewinds to the mid-1800s, when such classes were just beginning to appear, and explores how scientists in the United States first began to teach in and through the laboratory. The incorporation of such methods into science education was incredibly rapid: within a generation many American scientists and educators came to view practical laboratory training as essential. In fact they argued that the laboratory method, in which students learned through direct experience by conducting experiments, was the truest and most successful form for all education. The history of this development has often been described as a process of importation of European models. Reynolds shows how the American collegiate context and early uses of the educational experiment are significant to our understanding of how a generation of “importers” learned to experiment in the first place.

About the Speaker

Sarah J. Reynolds is an assistant professor in physics and earth-space science at the University of Indianapolis, where her main teaching focus is on developing scientific skills in future educators. She earned her PhD in physics from the University of Kansas in 2012 and is finishing her dissertation for her second PhD at Indiana University in the history and philosophy of science. Her research focuses on the history and philosophy underlying educational uses of the experiment, particularly in the development of laboratory-based instruction in the 19th-century United States. Reynolds was a research fellow at the Science History Institute in 2018–2019.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.