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Science Teaching

Date: 
2002
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2002-MG-2

I. The image of science - II. Science teaching: current on-field positions - III.  A global educational perspective - IV. Some more urgent issues nowadays - V. Opportunities for reflection and synthesis

I. The image of science

1. Science teaching at school. For most people, the first encounter with science takes place at school. Despite the growing importance of scientific communication at large and the increase in training and information channels, the greatest impact is made by science classes at school, through the first textbooks and the impression made by the teachers’ face and broad or strict personalities and approaches.

Unfortunately, during the last decades of the 20th century, paradoxically marked by the ongoing achievements of science and technology, science teaching failed to overcome a difficult situation. This occurs almost everywhere, also in the most technologically advanced countries; as Leon Lederman, the1988 Nobel prizeman in physics, one of the American scientists most actively campaigning for the promotion of scientific education, has put it in a nutshell: “In the societies still plagued by illiteracy, the latter is a shameful phenomenon; yet in our world scientific, illiteracy is more and more dramatic. Wherever it has been measured, it reaches peaks of 90-95%. The quality of scientific education given in primary schools is depressing, and this applies to both developed and developing countries” (Scienza e società. Dieci Nobel per il futuro, 1995, p. 42).

Events, projects and testing programmes are constantly set up both in individual countries and on a global scale: the largest one is Project 2000+, promoted within UNESCO by the International Council of Associations for Science Education (Icase), aiming to bridge the existing gap in scientific training in different countries as well as to increase the knowledge base of young people facing new social and environmental responsibilities. Despite scientists’, educationalists’ and teachers’ joint efforts, results  are mostly disappointing. The scientific knowledge stored by the average citizen amounts to very little considering the needs of a society like the present one.

While correct scientific concepts and knowledge tend to fade away over time, there is one thing that remains constant, even in those who do not pursue scientific studies: it is the image of science, both as a form of knowledge and as a type of human activity; and in both cases, alongside the image of science there is still a general idea of its relations with the other forms of knowledge and of its connections with the other human activities. The prevailing images of science as a form of knowledge are still hardly affected by the acquisitions of 20th-century epistemology: most people  hold on to the image of science as absolute knowledge, proceeding thanks to an infallible method and offering valid solutions for any kind of problem. As far as the researcher’s own daily activity is concerned, though literature and  above all cinema have offered more realistic images, the general public still believes in the stereotype of  scientists as eccentric geniuses, shut up in their laboratory and escaping any connections with the economic and military powers.

The science-faith issue would seem to lie outside the scope of a discussion on science teaching: at school it is hardly approached, except when presenting  paradigmatic “case studies” such as the Big Bang, and Darwin’s or Galileo’s biographies. Whenever it is approached, it is more likely to happen in the realm of subjects such as philosophy, history or literature; it hardly ever is the case in maths, physics and biology classes. This stems from a particular cultural mediation, according to which the great issues of human existence, the great questions inevitably arising during high school years, enter schools through the humanities: it is taken for granted that science subjects have nothing to do with specific views of the world and of man, that they are not influenced by such questions and have nothing to say to contribute to find answers to those questions.

In fact, the science-faith issue is more present than one thinks: it actually underlies the whole of teaching, since the way the problem itself is approached  and solved by each and every teacher points to  a cultural standpoint which is inevitably  reflected in their teaching approach and their educational practice; similarly, the way the youngster encounters science affects his/her judgment on it and therefore the whole range of its implications and relations, including its connections with their religious experience.

2. The neutrality debate. The typical objection raised to our argument so far rests on the notion of a “neutral” scientific teaching, itself stemming from science’s neutrality, so that the teachers’ own personal standpoints do not affect their transmission of knowledge and the pupils’ experience is basically independent from their teacher’s cultural and human standpoint itself.

The debate on the neutrality of science has reached some radical peaks in the second half of the 20th century and no unanimous position shared by scientists and philosophers has been reached yet. It is a problem which has  to be tackled with due caution, avoiding easy simplifications; the term “neutrality” itself can have different meanings and often the difficulties faced in the debate stem from the fact that the interlocutors refer  to mutually incomparable interpretations of the same word (cfr. E. Agazzi, Il bene, il male e la scienza, Milano 1992, cap. III).

In this context, as suggested above, an essential distinction, needed to approach the issue more clearly, has to be drawn between science as knowledge and science as an activity: they are two inseparable aspects within a scientist’s experience which, though, are worth distinguishing to better understand some aspects of the debate in question. Roughly one may say that, if one interprets science as an activity, it is difficult to regard it as neutral: every human activity depends on a general view of life and on the criteria which determine individual actions and choices (and in doing science there are continuous choices to be made). These, in turn, more or less consciously, draw on the values that we all possess as human beings. In the second meaning, science interpreted as a form of knowledge becomes a more sensitive issue. The connection between science and certain ideologies was extremely intense in certain periods: think of positivism, Marxism and a certain kind of more recent “ecologism”, where the ideological influence had a very strong impact resulting at times in some very striking and pathetic excess. On the other hand, as Evandro Agazzi (1992) has underlined, scientific knowledge is so objective that it should be more difficult to force it “to distort its objects to get them to serve ideological goals”; science, in conclusion, unlike other human expressions, possesses in itself many an instrument to justify its own statements and would seem to be able to achieve a high rate of immunity from biases, private interests and external influences.

In the light of recent reflections and the evolving socio-cultural context, the balance currently seems to fall more on the non-neutrality side; it is also because it seems to be more and more difficult to keep the two dimensions – the action-based and the knowledge-based ones – separate in a society that defines itself as knowledge society and in which even the most typical daily actions entail a substantial knowledge base, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the knowing experience is more and more mediated by the typical instruments and procedures of the techno-scientific system.

However, a positive side of the debate on neutrality has been its ability to unveil certain issues while making it more difficult to carry on with simplistic optimism. If, then, it is difficult to say that science can be “done” neutrally, it is even more difficult to argue that it can be “communicated” as aseptically “above all parties.” This argument does not only concern schools, but also dissemination of knowledge in its various forms.

II. Science teaching: the positions on the field

The prevailing position in science teaching would seem to indirectly stem from the merger of a functionalist notion of science and a pragmatic pedagogical approach, according to the “progressive” model worked out by John Dewey (1859-1952). The function of education would end up being that of disseminating  notions, training abilities and competencies aimed at certain practical applications and, more in general, at guaranteeing social efficiency and democracy in communal life. The late 20th-century witnessed the  gradual shift from knowledge-based to competence-based schooling, exclusively centred on the learning process and mainly concerned with measuring how efficient this process was in terms of social results. The teacher’s role came to be gradually marginalised and reduced to one of the  components of the pupil’s learning environment, due to facilitate group  activities. There is a tendency to drive any reference to the educational value of knowledge and skills out of this scenario. Moreover, any references to the sphere of meaning and values connected to knowledge as such, as well as to research activities, also seem to fade away. In brief, the present school context is soaked with a minimalist attitude, with a lax spirit, deprived of  any propositional value  and therefore of true freedom, which may be awakened and trained only through a clear-cut proposal. It is therefore pointless to complain about dealing with youngsters who have no reference points to pave their way and who, consequently, lose motivation and energy to make the effort to set out on the path of knowledge, while failing to acquire knowledge and skills themselves.

Likewise the debate on the “new sets of knowledge” that nurtured school-life at the end of the millennium remains entrapped in this reductionist and functionalist mental framework; it runs the even more serious risk of subordinating culture to social needs. The criteria used to redraw the borders between subjects and new  disciplinary areas do not seem to be dictated by an in-depth reflection on the development of “traditional” knowledge, but by a momentary need stimulated by some prevailing macroscopic social phenomena and by some global emergencies: within the scientific realm itself it is enough to mention environmental and energy issues, the spread of IT tools and biotechnologies. These are undoubtedly very important issues, also at a cultural level. Yet they cannot become a reference point themselves: they call for sound analysis and their direct identification calls for responsible action from those who have to take care of the future of young people.

A development of the pragmatist educational theory grafted into the theoretical foundations of  Jean Piaget (1896-1980)’s cognitive psychology resulted at the end of the 20th century in the cognitivist and constructivist educational models. For the latter knowledge is continuously constructed and reconstructed in the learning process and the latter is an act that exclusively belongs to the learner, who turns into its single controller. The ultimate outcome of this position is an image of fragmented knowledge, with no stable foundations, without any firm props, which is reconstructed every time, or rather is reconstructed by the learning subject. Here the connection with reality becomes a negligible factor when considered from an ideological position viewing reality as “web-like,” without any depth and lacking any other dimensions than the “horizontal” one. The result is a scattered form of knowledge, without references to a founding ontological level, without dramatic elements; it is a vision that throws people head on into the whirlpool of facts preventing them from realising what is really happening: “Here the relationship with facts is not a vertical but a horizontal one: it moves from a fact to its contextualising elements, which are theoretically unlimited, and then to other endless facts, crossed and connected by ever moving questions, according to a hypertext logic (an event or fact is a knot of a virtual network, of a constantly moving knowledge transformation process) […] A naïf view of ‘empirical fact’ is superseded by a more mature notion of ‘happening,’ which wraps it up for you in the spiral of a philosophy of complexity and dialogue” (R. Maragliano, Compagno di banco, Milano 1997, pp. 50-51). Without meaning to attack those who defend these positions, one may say, however, that what makes a phenomenon an event is not so much its complexity but its happening,  its eliciting a person’s reactions, its interacting with a self that is able to become aware of it. The reality presented by the ideology underlying many multimedia school projects is a reality lacking any firm reference points whatsoever, wrapping everything up in the “spirals of complexity” and in which nothing ultimately happens. Such a view of reality is reflected in a notion of knowledge, which develops along the lines of a “multi-branch thought,” applying a merely “horizontal” form of critique, producing a “break-up of disciplines,” in view of getting to “new configurations of  knowledge,” which nevertheless fail to match the prevailing image of a “chaotic, de-conceptualising kind of knowledge.”  Such a notion ultimately results in reducing the teacher’s role to that of a learning facilitator, whose presence becomes optional.

All this becomes as clear as ever in the teaching of scientific subjects which, at a superficial (or willingly careless) glance, seem to most embody the ripest form of horizontal, de-structured, changeable and continuously “revolutionising” knowledge. Stripping scientific knowledge of its cultural import, however, leads to a gradual weakening of the whole conceptual and methodological framework of each discipline, shaking the very pillars of scientific knowledge itself, that is the demonstrative method and the experimental dimension: the former tends to be excluded from the new syllabuses and handbooks; the latter is more and more replaced by computerized viewings and simulations (cfr. L. Russo, “Requiem per la dimostrazione,” Il Sole 24Ore, June 4, 2000).

III. A global educational perspective

If we believe that the religious question is not a marginal one but that it embraces the whole of a person’s experience and all other aspects, to try and highlight the critical points in the debate between scientific thought and faith we have to evaluate scientific thought within a global educational perspective.  

1. Scientific education and personal training. Firstly, we need to stretch the notion of scientific teaching to talk about scientific education as a  whole as  personal training in all its dimensions. Education, by its own nature,  cannot but be global: it has to have as its constant reference point the person growing up and growing up by harmoniously developing all their dimensions. If many teachers often implicitly object that sciences have to be considered alien and unsuitable to generate a global perspective, this stems from a lack of reflection on the nature of a discipline that may be capable of grasping the rich educational implications of a teaching like that of science. In a global educational perspective, on the other hand, the learning of natural sciences will be motivated as “one of the ways” in which the person: a) encounters natural reality; b) looks for an answer to some of the most typical questions concerning the relationship between man and nature; c) learns how to use reason according to appropriate methods to discover behavioural patterns, explanations and meanings underneath immediate sensible  appearances.

Along the same lines, teachers will have to keep an eye on the whole of the experience the student lives: the latter shall not be content with the assimilation of contents and procedures in a given discipline but will care for the overall personal development through a joint interaction with their colleagues. At the same time they shall be able to fully take advantage of the appropriate levels and instruments of that subject as opportunities to suggest ways to educate and develop individuals to full maturity. Man, in fact, is made up of a number of multiple components; each discipline, then, may be said to reveal and simultaneously educate a personal dimension, an archetypical man. Thus, for instance, history reveals the dimension of one’s permanent connection with ancestral roots, one’s need to anchor existence to a context which may overcome transience and offer a significant reference point; technology accounts for man’s original tendency to “rule over the earth,” to apply all the resources of one’s genius to turn nature into a response to specific personal and collective needs (a tendency that, prior to the Modern Age, went hand in hand with a sense of respect for the balance of nature as merely “entrusted” to man). Physics, chemistry and biology originally stem from the need to understand nature’s own behaviour in its “observable” components and express man’s ability to lead phenomena back to rationally constructed models, to hypothesize explanations of observed behaviours and to devise experiments in order to verify the reliability of those hypotheses. Along those lines, the development of  sciences, by getting access to particular aspects of natural reality, has set humans before the inexhaustible and irreducible breadth of reality’s dimensions and has therefore made them more aware of themselves and of their own destiny.

2. Rationality and scientific rationality. The second remark concerns the issue of rationality. There is a widespread view of science practically identifying rationality with scientific rationality, classifying as “knowledge” whatever is acquired by applying the scientific method and downgrading to mere “belief” all that is accessed through other ways. As a result, the validity and objectivity of the first kind of knowledge are immediately recognised, whereas the second is considered entirely questionable and subjective and cannot be referred to for solving any problems of any personal or public consequence. The strength  of the scientific  approach would be its ability to build up a critical sense, as a remedy against every form of fanaticism and dogmatism; this is where a reductionist view of criticism becomes visible, as it is made to overlap with the application of certain specific procedures according to a self-referential mechanism lacking any reference to a higher level. By taking this idea of horizontal criticism to its extreme consequences, one gets to praise doubt, which too is held to be a qualifying aspect of scientific knowledge: doubt here is conceived not so much as a legitimate need to clarify the darker facets of a problem, but as an ability to inexorably question everything irrespective of any specific urge to do so by reality itself. Yet this is where the circle  is closed: what was meant to be a strength, showing the  advantages of “knowing” vis-à-vis “believing,” turns into a weakness that paralyses any judgement and makes one unable to really construct anything. In fact, these positions are theorised more than being applied to scientific practice; unfortunately, though, they find their strongest expression in the school context.

3. Knowledge, tradition and unity of knowledge. The recognition of the correct autonomy of scientific knowledge, as well as the avowal of the revisable nature of every theory are assumptions built into teaching methods that call themselves progressive and support a teaching approach viewing the freedom from any bond as the highest achievement of the training progress. For that approach scientific knowledge would be obtained by directly getting to grips with “facts,” without any need for assimilating a tradition, to be able to then verify it without needing to depend on, or to relate to any teachers at all. The educational limitations of such an approach to knowledge are clear: what is sought is a mental habit systematically tending to ignore the past; the natural desire to attain personal convictions is confused with the rejection of the follow-up method as a natural way to make the achievement of any personalization easier. Yet it would suffice to scrutinize the history of science to see in tradition and in the company of a teacher the essential factors in the life of the greatest scientists and in the most innovative and creative periods in that history.

At first sight, there would seem to be an irreconcilable contrast between the vision offered by sciences nowadays, as fragmented in a multitude of specialist fields and areas of knowledge, and the strongly unified perspective proposed by religion. At best, the religious experience may be accepted as one of many subjective experiences but it is placed at the same level as the others in a sort of democracy of knowledge neglecting the radical difference emerging at the level of starting questions, even before that of final answers. On the other hand, the most recent debate has highlighted that individual fields of knowledge are insufficient in themselves and it is therefore necessary to access a broader sphere to embrace the multitude and variety of kinds of knowledge and to find the criteria to evaluate them. Scientific subjects themselves, being so fragmented and often failing to communicate with one another, call for the need to be unified, or at least to find a unifying ground where the tree of dialogue and fruitful co-operation may be able to grow (see Unity of Knowledge).

This is even more important at the educational level, because it is not feasible to train independent selves without strengthening a well-defined and unified identity that under any circumstances and faced with any problem may be able to find a synthetic and consistent point of view ably integrating specific notions, judgment and aware decisions.

IV. Some more urgent issues nowadays

What has been said so far applies even more to some particularly “hot” issues present in the scientific debate, which also enter the classrooms with their polemic force: the Big Bang theory, Darwin’s evolution theory and the Galileo case.

As far as the big bang and the problem of the origins of the universe are concerned, in the teaching process there is still great confusion between hypotheses and consolidated theories, between clues and verified facts, between mere predictions and experimental pieces of evidence. A great deal of science teachers, entrenching themselves behind the pedagogical pretext of simplifying for teaching purposes, end up holding as certain the view of the cosmos as a great self-sustaining mechanism leaving very little to be discovered by now. They do not refer to the numerous open issues in the standard big bang model or even to the alternative models seeking to interpret the observational discrepancies.

At a cultural level, the notion that is most affected is that of creation and its specific philosophical and theological dimensions are almost entirely overlooked. The lack of any connections between the teaching of philosophy and scientific disciplines, along with the limited philosophical sensitivity of science teachers, often makes it impossible to clearly draw a distinction between methodological areas and frameworks. It would be very important, at an educational level, to clearly pinpoint the peculiar nature of /cosmology, which is by now considered a scientific discipline and is studied by researchers mainly coming from the area of physics, although it features some elements which do not belong to natural sciences in the strict sense (think, for instance, of the possibility of conducting experiments). Cosmology turns out to be more like historical sciences, dealing with unrepeatable events which cannot be manipulated (cf. E. Agazzi, Filosofia della natura. Scienza e cosmologia, Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1995). In essence, it is overlooked that the study of the whole cosmos is inseparably bound to, and above all amounts to, a philosophical problem (see Universe).

Today, the scenario is even more confused by the loud claims made by the so-called “creationists” who, following up on the polemical debate for and against Darwinism, have almost aggressively spread interpretations concerning all the issues related to the “origins” (Cosmos, Earth, Life, Man) that do not render good service either to science or to Christian thought. The issue of creationism is closely related to the North American cultural context; yet, the terms of the debate are often also exported to different situations bringing about both imbalances and hardened positions. This does not facilitate an in-depth analysis of the problem – teachers are led to take some scientific assumptions for granted and to deal with the very idea of creation in a simplistic way. This applies not only to the origins of the universe, but it also involves the whole attitude to observing nature: students are not helped to read the latter in terms of creation, a creation in progress throughout history and still operating before their own eyes; it is something that is met with before interpreting it, and is in fact subject to reasoning precisely because it has been met with. Such a reductionist approach turns into a serious weakness at an educational level, since it confines human experience and impoverishes people at a crucial stage of their growth.

Similar uncertainties  and reductionist interpretations are equally found in dealing with the issues embracing theories on man’s biological evolution and origins. Yet one should note that,  whereas up to some years ago the way the living evolution theory and its interpretations were presented at school faithfully followed a strictly Darwinian approach, something is slowly changing now. In this respect, an article commenting on some surveys conducted in Italian schools concerning syllabuses, textbooks and other school learning aids has recently raised some eyebrows (cf. Isolani e Manachini, 1995). The authors have pointed out that, generally speaking, “the critical part of the evolutionary mechanisms is not sufficiently developed” in science classes and that a certain way of handling the issue “fosters in students’ minds the idea that, by rejecting the theory, it is evolution itself that is in fact rejected – something that hardly anyone considers acceptable today.” The debate following the article has unveiled the protection barriers that are still erected to guarantee the intangible value of Darwinist principles along with a strong resistance to accepting new interpretative frameworks for the evolution phenomenon. On the other hand, authoritative claims have also been made in favour of a change in trend and against any intolerant attitude.

Rather than directly getting involved in the polemical debate, science teachers are asked to make their own contribution by clearly setting out the plurality of existing theories, by justifying the pros and cons of each and pointing to outstanding issues. What has automatically happened in schools so far would thus be prevented: the rise of the belief that, if the fact of evolution is accepted, along with its own single “scientific” interpretation, then both the hypothesis of creation and the singularity and irreducibility of the “human phenomenon” vis-à-vis the remaining living beings have to be given up.

Just like in the case of Darwinism, so too for the issue going back to Galileo, it is not about defending predefined positions, whether it be those of the Church or those of Galileo; nor is it about ignoring a historical matter which has had so many cultural implications. Physics textbooks as well as history ones generally refer to the 1632 trial, but almost invariably only touch on the dualistic cliché featuring Galileo as the head of progressive thinkers, on one side, and the Church sternly defending purely conservative fixed positions, on the other. Even though they are decreasing, there are still more explicitly polemic and embittered discussions. The overall outcome, however, tends to further an image of Galileo as a “martyr of science,” without providing the elements for thorough personal judgment.

Physics teachers, on the other hand, can make an essential contribution by making things clearer, first of all by showing Galileo’s real input at a scientific level: his work on method, the notion of experiment, the role of mathematics, the new motion science. They can at the same time highlight the inadequacy of his cosmological proposal, the impossibility of succeeding in drawing up a satisfactory heliocentric model without any dynamics laws and on the basis of observations only, as fundamental as the latter may be. So too, it will not be unproductive to point to some of Galileo’s own mistakes, in particular his tide theory or the indication of Venus phases as a necessary and sufficient condition to back up his heliocentric theory. This, after all, would be in line with a teaching approach aimed at offering a balanced and historically thorough view of the Tuscan scientist’s profile, capable of providing students with an  image of science as a personal adventure, filled with all the limitations of any human enterprise.

Moreover, working jointly with colleagues of other subjects, science teachers can also contribute to reconstructing the historical and cultural context of Galileo’s biography; furthermore, they can help to place Galileo’s epistemological innovations within the contemporary debate to find out what remains valid and what is per force obsolete. Thus, it will be possible to point to an environment which can, at least theoretically, accept different levels of knowledge of reality as well as methods to achieve it, in order to be able to set the relationship between faith and science on new foundations.

V. Opportunities for reflection and synthesis

In general, as far as the relationship between scientific and religious thinking is concerned, we also want to point to the opportunity for school teachers to offer suitable pathways to shed light in a peaceful and instructive manner both on the unavoidable interlace between the two different spheres and on how they need to communicate with each other. The first clue concerns the scientist’s ethical responsibility, particularly felt with reference to the potential of biotechnologies and to the problem of environmental protection. Thoroughly tackling such issues means shifting from the sphere of scientific analysis to that of values, while identifying the foundations of such values. This will help to also highlight the often underestimated interconnection between science, consensus and the economy, as a further element to critically and carefully evaluate the way the links between science and religious faith are presented or transmitted by certain media. One should not even exclude the possibility of proposing parallel views and comparisons of how such issues have historically been identified and highlighted by the teachings of the Church and the way they have equally been signalled — even with significant convergence patterns — by a certain number of scientists. Some pages of the Gaudium et spes on the moral dimension of technological progress and of the Evangelium vitae on the risks of manipulating human embryos may, for instance, give rise to considerations just like those contained in Albert Einstein’s spiritual will, an important statement of the responsibility of scientists, with its heartfelt call to the pacific use of nuclear power.

The second learning pathway is opened by the opportunity to study the  biographies and the cultural-scientific context of some particularly significant authors, who were both well-known scientists and sincere believers. Irrespective of their religious profession, the histories of science and of culture in general show us quite a few characters that have eagerly pursued a form of harmony between science and  wisdom, without at the same time stopping asking philosophical and existential questions, even regarding the practice of their scientific work to start with (cf. e.g. Gentili and Tagliaferri, 1989; Gargantini, 1991). Men involved in scientific research, such as Albert the Great, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, James Clerk Maxwell, or in more recent times Einstein, Teilhard de Chardin or Abdus Salam, offered significant thoughts also in the field of philosophy and religion.  We owe them very much as both science teachers and students.

On such bases, even science teaching can lead to a debate on the unity of knowledge. What the teacher communicates to students is then the accessibility of a path along which science, moral experience and religious thought are no longer scattered pieces of a mosaic due to remain unfinished — because  they take up separated and incommunicable areas of human existence — but where all become genuine dimensions of knowledge, dimensions that can converge in the unity of one’s personal intellectual experience. As one looks for this path, which is often difficult to find, the example of people that have embraced the adventure of embarking on that very path stops one thinking of it as a utopian search, doomed to failure from the very start, and may rather encourage us to look for it sincerely and  passionately.

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