The Physics Department's History and Didactics Group began, in the late seventies, to go into aspects of knowledge of the History of Science and scientific education, and to underline the role the former could play in the latter. Half-way through the eighties, the Group linked contents and methodology to digital technology. Research has been following four lines:
History of Science
The research has focussed on analysing case studies in the History of Physics, from Galileo to the present. In particular, we have concentrated on scientific debates, analysing original manuscripts and memos, interpreting famous experiments, and evolving research programmes. Especial attention has been paid to the relationship between strictly scientific ideas and the theological and philosophical thinking of scientists, on the one hand; on the other, the connection between scientific concepts and the particular mathematical shape they take.
The Primary Sources
Particular attention has been paid to restoring and exploiting primary sources, such as the collection of scientific apparatus and books. Patient work on the thousand or so instruments in the Physics section of the University's History Museum has led to recovering and analysing a remarkable heritage which tells not only of science at that time but also of Pavia's development. As there was no subject catalogue of the impressive number of physics books in the Pavia library, first they had to be identified and then classified in careful detail. In the course of this cataloguing work, some thousands of memos have been recovered and organised, addressed to the directors of the Physics Institute from people of note, or less important people. These memos throw important light on the state of knowledge at the start of the twentieth century. Some inventories from the Physics Laboratory have also been identified, starting with Volta's.
These studies have been carried out, taking account of the results of research into the way students look at things. Various syllabuses for teaching basic concepts of Physics have been worked and tried out, at different academic levels. These syllabuses are structured to lead gradually from the observation of particular phenomena to their interpretation. This is done, through different types of experiment and modelling activities at various levels of formalisation, also using informatics: on-line laboratory, modelling software and multimedia environments. These last have allowed us to reconstruct some experiments of particular historical significance and suitable didactic thought content.
The fourth line of research concerns digital technology. Our first job was to transform the computer from a calculating machine into a means of communication. Competency in desktop editing was the primary objective. Then came experiments with hypertext, to change epistemological and historical methodology into teaching instruments. The resulting picture of science has met with considerable success. At one click of a mouse you can pass from a normal textbook to an advanced one, an original memo, the biographies of authors and their backgrounds, to root sources and research programmes and finally the construction of conceptual maps, summarising paths taken , using some of the principles, models, and mathematical and experimental structures. All this has shown Physics in a new light which has been of great use particularly to secondary school teachers. Being careful not to overload them with information, multimedia applications have been researched and developed, particularly scientific experiment simulations and the use of two- and three-dimensional presentations and animations to illustrate principles of Physics or how instruments work. We have also gone into the problem of authoring software for working out how to bring together hyper-textual and multimedia elements, as well as how the graphic interface functions with the user. From there we moved on to constructing some of the first web sites. The great advantage of this approach is that of having a standardising effect. The more intuitive navigation becomes and the more standardised the rules, the simpler it is for a navigator to understand the information from CD, Web or one's own hard disk. Research therefore turned to integrating these elements into an intranet/internet/ network, run by a local server. This network would include all these hyper-medial elements in a database which could be consulted by using the appropriate forms. Concentration is now on producing these forms and structuring the tables of results. The possibilities under consideration refer to the cross-referencing of research by word, author, title, discipline, date, media, geographical location and the methodological characteristics of the contents. We are going further into how to transform resulting tables into proper two-dimensional conceptual maps, with the facility of changing the names of graph axes and of what is shown on the two axes.