The research of Pavia University's History and Didactics Group from the "A.Volta" Department of Physics

The History and Teaching Group from Pavia University's "A.Volta" Department of Physics have been trying to rectify the above situation for the last 20 years. Specifically, this group of about a dozen researchers and lecturers have singled out for action three study areas: the history and philosophy of science, science education and digital technology.

History and Philosophy of Science

The history and philosophy of science over the last forty years have completely upset the traditional view of how science developed and what it really means. Instead of the traditional idea of there being objective unchanging truth, which was arrived at by trial and error through critical experiments based on incontrovertible facts, we now have a more fruitful picture of various natural philosophies in continual competition with each other. From their alternating successes, we have moved towards conceptualising, quantifying and mathematising the various phenomena. These are, however, parts of alternative conceptual systems and can no longer be considered as crucial by themselves. Factors which in the past were excluded, such as the cultural, institutional and social contexts in which scientists live, as well as their personal preference for one or other natural philosophy, are nowadays considered essential to proceeding in a particular research direction. In place of the traditional view of the objectivity of science, we have a concept which gives plenty of space to the subjectivity of the scientist. Obviously we can still talk about truth and intersubjectivity, but within the accepted paradigms, and, apart from the cognitive aspects, those of fertility and efficiency are emphasised.

A much more appropriate metaphor than the reductionist one concerning basic elements is that of intersecting matrices of disciplines. This ties up with the idea of knots in ever-widening networks. The picture of science which results from these considerations is knowledge of the History of Science including innovation (invention, conceptualisation, discovery) , justification (logical development, quantifying and mathematisation) and experimental corroboration ( testing for truth or falsity).

Science Education

The term "science education" can no longer refer to the old idea of science. Improbable series of hypotheses and deductions cannot be presented as summaries of assumed truth. Careful investigation shows that this approach cannot transmit scientific knowledge to students. All over this more advanced world, students are dropping science both at schools where it is permitted and at university.
The problem is a complex one. Successful research is going side by side with scholastic lack of success. The more modern scenario, which is widely shared even at international level, is based on constructivist methods in which the teacher plays a very different role in relation to the class. The teacher becomes the watchful guide, participating in the responsible students active efforts to work out their own cultural blend.

From this point of view, the basic aim of research in Physics is to discover and try out ways of transmitting this culture effectively to an ever wider public. This means taking account of the optimum order in which to present the subject, the learning problems of students, teaching strategies and the professionalism of the teaching staff. Moreover, the speed at which knowledge is growing and becoming obsolete encourages innovative learning based on an ability to formulate problems rather than the conservative approach of solving already given ones. Obviously, what is needed for the former method is not only the technical competence necessary for the second too, but also more general skills referring to selected objectives and therefore to a value system. So it is difficult to rely on the traditional textbooks to spread knowledge of the History of Science.


Digital Technology

Digital technology can provide fresh solutions. The spread of web-sites based on hyper-textual language, using easy-to-follow graphics, has encouraged the production of reference works (encyclopaedia, dictionaries, manuals) based on digital technology. This includes not only the hyper-textual but also the multimedia (hypermedia), conveyed by CD-ROM and soon by the more capacious DVD-ROM. So we have a wonderful but still, at present, difficult opportunity to combine our non-linear (hyper-text), literary and computer heritage with a cinema and television one which is linear (audio-visual media). On this basis, knowledge of the History of Science may be spread using new ways of expression, both as regards content and method. On the one hand there are texts, original sources, graphics, drawings, photos, animations, movies, audio commentaries, mathematical formulations, quantitative simulations of scientific experiments , which can all be represented digitally and combined in various ways. What is more, this digital technology allows of different approaches according to level. One can provide less expert users with simpler, largely multimedia and therefore more linear versions. From there one can pass gradually on to less linear formats. For example, starting from movies and animations, one can move on to more automatic mode, with interactive presentations, texts, hyper-texts, multimedia hyper-texts and finally to multimedia modules obtained via access to a powerful database. These different ways of spreading knowledge can, moreover, be used either in the normal classroom, with the teacher, or in specially equipped rooms, or alternatively by the student at home, using group memory (e.g. CD) or connection via internet.
In the current pioneering phase, one result is the standardising both of hyper-media software and of navigational styles. This obviously makes it easier to prepare and use the new tools, as well as facilitating the harmonisation of this technology with teaching requirements. The student is now, metaphorically, a navigator in knowledge and the teacher, who cannot now master all easily available information, plays the role of guide. In this situation the conceptual map becomes a hyper-textual programme of summaries from which, with the appropriate connection, one can access the more detailed contents.