Purpose: Students will explore and synthesize information from an authoritative digital source to expand their understanding of the nature and process of scientific discovery.

Procedural overview: After using the clues provided to independently explore the Science News Century of Science website, students will discuss what they learned as a class and then investigate historic milestones in groups. Each student group will identify research advances from an assigned decade and then present a summary that makes connections to current science.

Approximate class time: 1 class period

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Century of Science student worksheet

Computer with access to the internet, Science News Century of Science, Science News and Science News for Students article archive

Interactive meeting and screen-sharing application for virtual learning (optional)

Audio or video capture hardware and editing software (optional)

Want to make it a virtual lesson?

This activity can be done virtually using interactive meeting software for group discussions and using video-sharing technologies to record and deliver presentations. Student groups should use screen-sharing and file-sharing applications that allow for real-time viewing and editing.

Background information

The Century of Science site celebrates 100 years of accurate, engaging reporting on science, medicine and technology from Science News. The website features original reporting on advances over the past century that have transformed our understanding of Earth, the universe and what it means to be human, as well as links to archived articles dating back to 1921.

The site features 14 “themes,” each of which explores one subtopic of science. “Connections” are collections of stories that cut across science subtopics to highlight the people and process of science. “Milestones” presents a timeline of discoveries from 1900 through today.

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Each student should choose two themes on the Century of Science site to explore based on their personal interests. Once they have selected their themes, assign students the following clues to be completed as homework before the class discussion and group activity. If you think your students will need support while searching the site, they could do this portion of the activity in class.

Have students answer the following clues to explore the themes they have selected. Students should answer as many clues as they can.

For the themes you selected…

1. Identify one idea or theory proposed to explain something about the world. Who proposed the idea and when? What was the evidence?

Possible answer for “Cracking the atom”: Wolfgang Pauli in 1930 proposed the idea of a particle with no electric charge that doesn’t interact very much with other matter — the neutrino. He proposed it to explain why some physics reactions weren’t following a basic rule of physics that said energy should be conserved. The neutrino would carry some energy away in those reactions, restoring the balance.

2. Identify one source of data or dataset that offered scientists new knowledge. What was the data, and why was it important?

Possible answer for “Shaking up Earth”: Newly available data from the seafloor, including sonar and magnetic data, revealed the locations of underwater mountain chains and identified a magnetic “zebra stripe” pattern in seafloor rocks. These data offered crucial evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.

3. Name a new tool or technology that transformed the scientific endeavor. When was it developed, and what was its impact?

Possible answer for “The human blueprint”: In the 1990s, researchers developed the technique of shotgun sequencing. It sped up scientists’ efforts to read the string of letters (the bases) of DNA and so understand how our DNA makes us who we are.

4. Identify one person who played an important part in the advance of science. Who were they? What did they contribute?

Possible answer for “The Mystery of reproduction”: In 1965, Beatrice Minz created mice with two mothers and two fathers (four-parent mice). These mice allowed her to trace the genetic origins of distinct organs, and her technique has been used extensively to study mouse development, and thus gain insight into mammalian development more generally.

5. Name one scientific term or concept that you weren’t familiar with. Is it defined in the story? If so, what is the definition? If not, can you tell its meaning from context?

Possible answer for “The science of us”: Heuristics means mental shortcuts. Some psychology studies show that people rely on these mental shortcuts when they make decisions.

6. Find a time when scientists got something wrong. What did they get wrong and why?

Possible answer for “The human story”: Some scientists thought fossils known as the Piltdown Man, discovered in 1912, showed that humans had their origins in Europe with the development of a big brain. The fossils later proved to be a hoax. We now know that humans originated in Africa.

7. Find one historical quote or headline. What is it? Who said or wrote it? Why?

Possible answer for “Our wild universe”: Quasars were described in a 1964 Science News headline as “crazy.” The news story described these objects as “the most distant, brightest, most energetic, heaviest and most puzzling sources of radio and light and waves yet found.” They were described this way because they were new and exciting to scientists, and more extreme than other celestial bodies, but scientists didn’t understand what they were or what formed them.

8. Name one instance in which progress in one area of science was dramatically affected by an advance in a seemingly unrelated area of science. What was the advance, and why was it important?

Possible answer for “Our climate crisis”: The development of computers and improvements in computing power allowed scientists to create models that connect Earth’s systems and so better understand climate change and its effects.

9. Name one scientific advance that affected people’s daily lives. What was the advance, and how did it affect daily life?

Possible answer for “Epidemics and their aftermath”: The development of the polio vaccine meant people no longer needed to fear this debilitating disease. Other vaccines likewise protect people from illnesses.

10. Identify one prediction for the future. What is the prediction, and who makes it?

Possible answer for “Our brains, our futures”: The author of the article predicts, based on the trajectory of current research, that “brain bots,” tiny robots that can interfere with neural signals, will one day be used to treat physical and mental conditions such as depression.

Class discussion

During the class discussion, you will help students make connections across scientific subtopics and reinforce their understanding of how to use the Century of Science site. Direct students to the “connections” tab on the website and use the following questions to guide the discussion.

1. What themes did you explore and what are the related scientific subtopics? Did you have a favorite theme?

The themes and associated subtopics are Shaking up Earth (Earth science, geophysics); Our wild universe (astronomy, cosmology, physics); Our brains, our futures (neuroscience); Cracking the atom (nuclear physics, chemistry); The mystery of reproduction (life science, human reproduction); Other worlds (astronomy, planetary sciences); The science of us (psychology, psychiatry); The human story (paleoanthropology, paleontology, human evolution); Epidemics and their aftermath (pathology, immunology, virology, epidemiology, vaccine sciences); Materials that made us (chemistry, materials science, engineering, physics); Quantum reality (quantum mechanics, physics); The human blueprint (genetics); The future of computing (physics, engineering, information theory, artificial intelligence); and Our climate crisis (climate science, geoscience, meteorology).

2. What is the focus of the “Let’s talk” connection?

The “Let’s talk” connection brings together articles related to the language of science. The articles in this collection highlight how language affects science and how people engage with and understand scientific discoveries and advances.

3. Was there a term or concept you identified from your themes that would fit within that connection? Why or why not?

Possible answer for “Other worlds”:  The definition and concept of “planet” has changed overtime as new worlds have been discovered around other stars and as we understand our own solar system differently.

4. What is the focus of the “New vistas” connection?

The “New vistas” connection explains how technological and intellectual developments have led to new questions and areas of research. Sometimes these new developments are tools or techniques. Sometimes new data or a different perspective changes how we view old data.

5. Is there a development from your themes that would fit within this connection? Why or why not?

Possible answer for “The human story”: The ability to date fossils through radioactive dating techniques gave scientists a clearer picture of when various human ancestors lived and so more information about how our species evolved.

6. In the “New vistas” collection, the 1931 invention of the electron microscope is a milestone that is tagged as being associated with three themes. What are those themes, and how does this one invention relate to multiple themes?

The three themes are “Our brains, our future,” “Epidemics and their aftermath” and “Materials that made us.” In 1931, the invention of the electron microscope introduced a new technology that scientists could use to study the human brain, viruses and the chemical structures of elements and molecules. This opened new lines of inquiry in multiple fields of science, including neuroscience, virology and chemistry.

7. What is the focus of the “Unsung characters” connection?

The “Unsung characters” connection highlights the important work of scientists who are not widely recognized for their contributions. It shows science as a human endeavor and highlights how discoveries depend on individuals with their own unique knowledge, experiences and perspectives.

8. What do you notice about the people described in the articles? How might that observation relate to advances you read about in your themes?

Sample answer for “The human story”: The articles in this collection focus particularly on women, people of color and amateur or citizen scientists. Most of the scientists known for their contributions to the study of human evolution are European scientists, and a lot of them are male. Their backgrounds and live experiences might influence the types of scientific questions that get asked, as well as how they interpret scientific data.

Group research

Divide the class into small groups. Assign each group a decade between the 1910s and 2010s. As a group, students will use the Century of Science Milestones page to explore their decade and discuss advances in science, technology and medicine from that period. Then, the groups will answer the following questions for their assigned decade.

1. What decade will your group investigate?

Sample answer: We are investigating the 1940s.

2. What do you think was the most important scientific discovery or technological development of your decade? What evidence supports your answer?

Sample answer: We think the most important scientific discovery or technological advance of the 1940s was the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in 1942. This breakthrough was a major step toward developing nuclear power and developing nuclear weapons.

3. Was the scientific discovery or technological advance you identified related to any important world event? If so, describe how the two are related.

Sample answer: Yes, the development of controlled nuclear chain reactions influenced the outcome of World War II. In 1945, the United States dropped two bombs on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people and hastening the end of World War II.

4. Name a scientific discovery or technological advance that was controversial? Why was it controversial?

Sample answer: The development and use of atomic bombs was controversial because scientists unleashed a new weapon more powerful than the world had ever seen before.

5. Describe how a scientific discovery or technological advance from your assigned decade is still relevant today.

Sample answer: Several discoveries or advances from the 1940s are still relevant today. Airplanes and ships still use radar for navigation and tracking. Archaeologists use radiometric dating to identify the ages of unearthed materials. The development of transistors powered modern computing and communication.

6. Which “connection” is most relevant to the discoveries and advances of your decade? Explain your answer.

Sample answer: We think the most relevant connection for the 1940s is “New vistas.” The 1940s were defined by developments in nuclear physics and the construction and use of atomic bombs. These technologies introduced a lot of questions about how to harness the power of the atom, as well as questions about the ethics of doing so. The developments also shaped political and social agendas.

Presentation

After students complete their research, have them develop a brief presentation that summarizes their assessment of the key scientific discovery or technological advance of their assigned decade. Students can choose the format for their presentation and should be encouraged to use images, video or other media. Have students use the questions from the previous section to plan their presentations.

Sample presentation text: The most important scientific discovery or technological advance of the 1940s was the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. This breakthrough was a major step toward developing nuclear power and developing nuclear weapons. This advance was affected by World War II, as the Manhattan Project sought to harness advances in nuclear physics for a more powerful weapon. Eventually, the use of atomic bombs in Japan would hasten the end of World War II. Nuclear technologies introduced not only new questions about how atoms work and how to harness their power, but also new questions about the ethics of doing so. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are relevant to environmental and political issues today.

Additional resources

Science News articles:

Science News Staff. “The science stories that defined 2020: coronavirus, diversity movements and more.” Published online December 27, 2020.

N. Shute. “The triumph and fallibility of science in a historic year.” Science News. Published online December 13, 2021.

Science News Staff. “These are the most-read Science News stories of 2021.” Published online December 23, 2021.

E. Quill. “Looking back on science can refocus our attention.” Published online October 31, 2021.

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