The Galileo Trial


From the book Science Made Stupid: How to Discomprehend the World Around Us by Tom Weller

Well here it is, the first month of school is over and for the first time in a couple of years I am just finished doing The Trial of Galileo in my astronomy course. I had hard time deciding to do it this year as I am trying to recreate it after my superintendent cut the course from our curriculum a year and a half ago.  However, after much thought I decided to try it with this new group of students.

The reason i am blogging about it, is that my daily Agenda  tweets caused some interest and people asked me to talk about the project.  So here I go…

I first created the project back in 1991 when my students were appalled that the Catholic church spent ten years to research and then publish a 100 page document that basically said that Galileo may have been right and they were sorry about  his imprisonment at their hands.

On a whim, I divided the class into two parts, declared one side the church and one side the scientists.  They could be anyone from throughout time(but pulled into the twentieth century.) Students had to portray someone important in the conversation of geo vs heliocentricity.  One person on each side was the lawyer and I would be the judge. In 1991 there wasn’t really much of an internet so we marched up to the library and the students started their research.

The Trial has undergone some tweaking since then but essentially remains the same.  Students must present the science from both sides and argue for and against each concept.  In the end the class is the jury to see which side best achieved their goal.

The scientists must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Earth revolves around the sun.

The Church must only cast doubt on the Heliocentric model.

Oh, and all evidence must be Earthbound evidence, no pics from space, etc.

We spend about a week researching nowadays on it and the students then produce the witnesses and then question their own witnesses and then they get cross examined by the opposing side.  It is amazing watching the student get excited at the prospect of challenging their friends on the opposing team.

Their grades are based (1) on a peer grade for their performance on the stand, (2) A peer grade on their performance in helping out their team, and (3) on an essay test which has four questions on it.  Two of which they know from day 1 of the trial.

For me, the best part is watching the roller coaster of emotions that I know will occur to the students during the research and then the trial.  They all tell me it =is the most stress they have ever felt on a school project.

One year I decided to not do the trial, because I was bored with it.  My students boycotted the class unless i let them do the Trial.  They had taken the course because they had heard about the trial.  Kinda cool.  I relented and they had a great time.

Why not do something like this to do the history of astronomy, instead of lecture?

If you have questions or want to do something like this, just ask and I will share stuff with you. I love feedback and sharing.

Oh, and in case you are wondering…  Galileo is found to a heretic about 70% of the time.  The Sun goes around the Earth.  What do you think the students make of that?


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