To explore the scientific knowledge behind some of Thomas Edison's inventions and the impact that his work has had on society and history.
This lesson makes use of a book called Thomas Edison for Kids by Laurie Carlson (Chicago Review Press, 2006). This book was one of the winners of the 2007 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books (you can read about this prize at: Book Award). Carlson combines a biography of Thomas Edison with 21 activities that students can use to replicate some of Edison's simpler experiments. The biographical information provides an interesting context for the hands-on activities and can help young learners understand the scientific concepts that underlie Edison’s work.
By studying the inventions and reading the biography of Thomas Edison, students will develop a broader view of technology and how it is both like science and unlike science. This is important because students typically do not distinguish between an engineering model of experimentation, where the goal is to produce a desirable outcome, and the scientific model of experimentation, where the goal is to understand the relation between cause and effect.
The biography will help students as they begin to think about their own possible occupations, introducing them to careers in engineering and industrial design. As students read the book, they can imagine what life was like before electricity and telephones and explore how those technological advances affect them today. They also can formulate and compare their own scenarios for some future time—say, when they are adults.
By duplicating some of Edison’s inventions, the students will assemble simple inventions, describing what the various parts are for, and estimating what the effect of making a change in one part of a system is likely to have on the system as a whole.
Have your students listen to the podcast of the Interview with Thomas Edison for Kids author Laurie Carlson. Then have them discuss these questions:
- Why did Laurie Carlson decide to write a book about Thomas Edison? (Her grandson inspired her to write the book. He was very interested in Edison and encouraged her to write the book.)
- How did Henry Ford and Thomas Edison help one another in business? (The two men were best friends. They often talked about their ideas together and gave each other ideas for new inventions.)
- What are some of the reasons that Laurie Carlson likes biographies? (It’s important to have mentors or people you can look up to. Biographies are excellent windows into someone else’s life and allow us to think about how we may have behaved or performed in similar circumstances.)
- What are three things that the author wants every reader to know about Edison? (She wants every reader to know about his curiosity, sense of adventure, and willingness to make mistakes.)
- What were some of Edison’s difficulties as a child? (He didn’t have much education, was from a poor family, was shy, couldn’t hear well, and couldn’t focus.)
- Why was Edison not afraid to make mistakes? (Edison believed that his mistakes often showed him what wouldn’t work.)
Next, take five minutes and have students write down the technology they use every day. Using what they wrote, have a class discussion with the following questions as a guide. Similar questions will be asked later in the Assessment section.
- Why do you think people might want to invent something new?
- In which ways have the technological inventions you use every day made your life easier? Have any made your life harder? How?
- How has technology influenced the course of history? What effects has it had on transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, education, communication, and entertainment?
- What is the difference between science and technology? What are some of the similarities between the two? What are some of the ways in which science helps technology and technology helps science?
(Accept all reasonable answers. Encourage students to elaborate on their responses.)
Have students read the biography of Edison found in Thomas Edison for Kids by Laurie Carlson.
Then, divide students into groups and have each group do one of the hands-on activities found in the book. Some activities use materials that are easier to obtain than others, so you may want to decide in advance which activities students should undertake.
Students should then present the activities to the class. Their presentations should include a science-fair-like demonstration of the activity plus a written report that explains how the activity relates to Edison’s work and the science that underlies it. To help students prepare their presentations, give them the Presenting Your Activity student sheet, which provides them with some guidelines for their presentations.
After students have read Edison’s biography and completed their hands-on activities, have them discuss these questions from the Thomas Edison’s Inventions student sheet:
- Why does someone become an inventor? (Answers will vary.)
- Thomas Edison stated that, "My desire is to do everything within my power to further free the people from drudgery and create the largest possible measures of happiness and prosperity." Discuss why you think people might want to invent something new. Do you think Edison’s inventions made people’s lives easier? In which ways? (Answers will vary.)
- What were some of the many ways that Thomas Edison approached inventing? (Answers will vary, but should include prodigious note-taking, mulling over questions and then putting them aside for a period of time, hiring other inventors to work as a team, looking for ways to make money, finding ways to make someone’s job easier, etc.)
- Have you ever invented anything? What could you invent that would make your life better? What approach would you take to invent something? (Answers will vary. Examples of approaches could include working alone or in a team, working on a computer, drawing on paper, etc.)
- How have the inventions of Edison influenced the course of history? For example, how did the battery affect transportation? (Answers will vary but could include that cars need batteries to operate.)
- How would agriculture and manufacturing have been different without the conveyor belt system? (The processes would take much more time because of the human labor involved. The systems would not be as efficient.)
- What would modern communication be like without the telephone? (We could only communicate in person or by mail.)
- How would education and entertainment be different? (For one, there would be no computers for doing homework and for creating special effects.)
- What is the difference between science and technology? (Answers will vary, but basically, science is trying to find something out, e.g., about the nature of reality, and technology is trying to make something happen, e.g., making practical use of electricity or finding a cure for a disease.) What are some of the similarities between the two? (The process of discovery, use of measurement, and unknown consequences are some similarities.)
- What are some of the ways in which science helps technology? (Examples could include how electrical experimentation led to the world-wide use of electricity.) Technology helps science? (Examples could include how electricity enables scientists to use more sophisticated machinery.)
The following Science NetLinks resources can help extend the ideas presented in this lesson:
Thomas Edison’s Inventions in the 1900s and Today: From “New” to You! is a lesson plan from Edsitement which is meant to help familiarize students with life and technology around 1900 in order to better understand how Edison influenced both.
Inventors Power Point Rubric, from a ReadWriteThink lesson, helps teachers evaluate various aspects of students' PowerPoint presentations that include information about the lives of American inventors.