History of Science

Initial Publication Date: December 2, 2005

Another approach is to teach Earth history within the context of human history, in which many students may be well-versed.

Antonio Snider-Pellegrini
  • The topics of the course, such as plate tectonics, can be taught using stories of discoveries and debates.
  • The instructor can emphasize how the Scientific Method and paradigm shifts work and stress the importance of doubt in science.
  • This format is also a useful vehicle for teaching the nature of evidence used to work out past events (especially ones without a modern analog) and the importance of having a mechanism when developing (and especially when debating) a theory.

Topics for a history of Earth history course may include:

  • The development of the geologic timescale by British stratigraphers
  • How the timescale has been filled in by the international scientific community and still is far from finished
  • The discovery of radiometric dating
  • The information revealed by the first ocean cores


History of geology courses and resources often emphasize the biographies of the researchers who clearly formulated the major concepts of modern geoscience, such as Hutton or the Curies.

  • These discoveries form their own timeline, extending (to the best of our knowledge) from now-nameless astrologers all over the world, to Classical scientists such as Democritus, into the Renaissance and the present day.
  • James Aber's History of Geology course takes a broad approach, covering all of geology. There are several useful biographies linked to his syllabus. He uses a chronologic, biographical approach.


It is also possible to structure a course around the history of a debate.

Markes Johnson's tutorial Scientific Method and the Paradox of Controversy examines the 300+-year-old struggle between uniformitarianism and catastrophism (which have often gone by other names, but are generally recognizable).

  • This debate has never been settled and has played a part every discovery in Earth History (and the rest of geoscience).
  • For most lessons, students read original scientific papers by experts on different sides of a given issue and look at how each author is applying the scientific method (as differences in method are often the cause of different findings).
  • One lesson is on whether sea-level curves represent gradual changes or series of abrupt changes.


Based on their research on the effect of history of science classes on student understanding of science, Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman, 2000 recommend that instructors using a history-of-science approach:

  • Explicitly address the nature of science in detail, stressing that social pressures as well as observation shape theories.
  • Teach students to regard historical materials in context (from the perspective of the people of that period).
  • Explain the relevance of the historical science they are studying to modern science.

History of Geology Resources