Research in student knowledge and learning of science has typically focused on explaining conceptual change. Recent research, however, documents the great degree to which student thinking is dynamic and context-sensitive, implicitly calling for explanations not only of change but also of stability. In other words, when a pattern of student reasoning is sustained in specific moments and settings, what mechanisms contribute to sustaining it? We characterize student understanding and behavior in terms of multiple local coherences in that they may be variable yet still exhibit local stabilities. We attribute stability in local conceptual coherences to real-time activities that sustain these coherences. For example, particular conceptual understandings may be stabilized by the linguistic features of a worksheet question or by feedback from the students’ spatial arrangement and orientation. We document a group of university students who engage in multiple local conceptual coherences while thinking about motion during a collaborative learning activity. As the students shift their thinking several times, we describe mechanisms that may contribute to local stability of their reasoning and behavior.
The second law of thermodynamics is typically not a central focus either in introductory university physics textbooks or in national standards for secondary education. However, the second law is a key part of a strong conceptual model of energy, especially for connecting energy conservation to energy degradation and the irreversibility of processes. We are developing a conceptual model of the second law as it relates to energy, with the goal of creating models and representations that link energy, the second law, and entropy in a meaningful way for learners analyzing real-life energy scenarios. We expect this model to help learners better understand how their everyday experiences relate to formal physics analyses. Our goal is to develop tools for use with elementary and secondary teachers and secondary and university students.
The Energy Project at Seattle Pacific University has developed representations that embody the substance metaphor and support learners in conserving and tracking energy as it flows from object to object and changes form. Such representations enable detailed modeling of energy dynamics in complex physical processes. We assess student learning by means of representations that learners invent to explain energy dynamics in specific real-world scenarios. Refined versions of these learner-generated representations have proven valuable for our own teaching, physics understanding, and research.
The nature of energy is not typically an explicit topic of physics instruction. Nonetheless, verbal and graphical representations of energy articulate models in which energy is conceptualized as a quasimaterial substance, a stimulus, or a vertical location. We argue that a substance ontology for energy is particularly productive in developing understanding of energy transfers and transformations. We analyze classic representations of energy—bar charts, pie charts, and others—to determine the energy ontologies that are implicit in those representations, and thus their affordances for energy learning. We find that while existing representations partially support a substance ontology for energy and thus the learning goal of energy conservation, they have limited utility for tracking the flow of energy among objects.
Heat transfer is widely taught in secondary Earth science and physics. Researchers have identified many misconceptions related to heat and temperature. These misconceptions primarily stem from hunches developed in everyday life (though the confusions in terminology often worsen them). Interactive computer simulations that visualize thermal energy, temperature distribution, and heat transfer may provide a straightforward method for teaching and learning these concepts.