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IPN-Energy-Project - Biology

Progressing Energy Understanding in Biological Contexts and Learning about Energy across Disciplinary Boundaries


Energy is a central concept in science and is internationally considered a core idea in biology, chemistry and physics instruction. As such, energy functions as an explanatory tool for a multitude of contents and is furthermore considered an important means to foster integrated science understanding. This research project focusses on assessing energy understanding in biological contexts and provides approaches for modelling processes of cross-disciplinary energy learning.


Backgrounds: Due to topics like, e.g., climate change, the energy transition or health, the term ‘energy’ is frequently mentioned in everyday contexts. Here, ‘energy’ is often used in reference to ideas like ‘saving energy’ or ‘energy loss’. However, such energy connotations can hardly be aligned with the scientific, abstract energy concept. Energy has great potential as an explanatory tool for various phenomena. For example, the application of the energy concept allows learners to determine if certain processes can actually occur within a system or not.

With regard to this background, energy has been rooted as a concept of special significance (‘core ideas’) in physics, chemistry, biology and technical education (e.g. NRC, 2012). Importantly, core ideas like energy or matter reappear across a variety of contexts at many grade levels. Thus, contents that are otherwise less obviously connected to each other can be brought into connection by the application of the energy concept. Here, an important research finding is that experts have been shown to structure their knowledge around core ideas like energy. Through this knowledge organization, the experts create a complex, ‘integrated’ (cf. ‘knowledge integration’ by Linn, 2004) web of knowledge (Bransford et al., 1999). With regard to multi-disciplinary challenges (e.g. climate change, cf. Sakschewski et al., 2014), the disposability of such an integrated knowledge web is seen as especially relevant for future citizens.

Energy as a concept is remarkable because it has both been considered a core idea within all natural sciences, but also a crosscutting concept across them (NRC, 2012). Thereby, students are thought to profit by learning more cumulatively, i.e. by bringing single concepts and pieces of knowledge into more plausible connection (Krajcik et al., 2012).

Despite its relevance in science classes (Australia: ACARA, 2013; Germany: KMK, 2005a, 2005b; Switzerland: EDK, 2011; UK: DfE, 2013; USA: NRC, 2012), numerous studies showed that both students and teachers frequently encounter difficulties with the energy concept in science classes and rather employ various alternative ideas than the scientific energy concept (Kindergarten: van Hook & Huziak-Clark, 2008; Primary level: Liu & Ruiz, 2008; Lower secondary level: Trumper, 1993; upper secondary level: Fiengold & Trumper, 1989; Duit & Kesidou, 1988; Students: Chabalengula, Sanders & Mumba, 2011; Student teachers: Trumper, 1997; Teachers: Tobin et al., 2011).


Fig. 1. Examples of student drawings that depict what energy means for them. A focus on regenerative energy sources becomes apparent, while classical context as assessed by the studies in this project (e.g. nutrition, growth) are rarely drawn.


Most previous studies on students’ energy understanding focused on energy in physics contexts. In contrast, research on energy learning in biology or chemistry, as well as on cross-disciplinary energy learning has only rarely been addressed.


Research focus: In relation to these open research fields, this dissertation project is concerned with progressing energy understanding in biological contexts. In an extension of this primary focus, the project furthermore addresses how progressing energy understanding in biology is related to the accompanying contexts chemistry and physics.

To address this research desideratum, the following three studies were conducted.




Study 1: Progressing Energy Understanding at Primary Level: The Role of Biological Contexts


Numerous biological contexts at primary level reference – mostly implicitly – the energy concept (Opitz et al., 2014). As formal, explicit energy instruction mostly commences after the primary level in physics contexts, we asked if students already develop a basis of their energy understanding along biological contexts before the onset of explicit energy instruction.

To address this question, a multiple-choice questionnaire was developed (16 items) that aimed to assess progressing energy understanding in biological contexts at primary level. N = 540 students at the ends of grades 3-6 participated in a cross-sectional questionnaire study, while variables like reading comprehension, motivation/interest or fluid intelligence served as covariates.

The results show a significant development in energy understanding along biological context before students receive explicit energy instruction. While students’ understanding of energy forms/sources and transfer/transformation increased substantially, understanding of degradation and conservation was limited among the students and showed little or no progression.

The results of this and other studies (e.g. Novak, 2005, Shulz & Coddington, 1981) suggest that energy instruction at primary level could profit from a more explicit approach to energy instruction in order to lay the roots for a later, adequate understanding of energy in science instruction.

The results of this study are concluded in:

Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K., Kowalzik, K., Frank, A. (2014). Students‘ Energy Concepts at the Transition between Primary and Secondary School. Research in Science Education. doi 10.1007/s11165-014-9444-8




Study 2: Progressing Energy Understanding across the Three Contexts Biology, Chemistry, and Physics


In study 1, data indicated that energy learning in one disciplinary context can form the basis for energy learning in another discipline (cf. Hirca & Akdeniz, 2008, Lancor, 2015). As previous research has almost exclusively focused on progressing energy understanding within discipline-specific contexts, study 2 addressed the following questions:


(1)  What progression in energy understanding do students exhibit across middle and high school contexts from biology, chemistry, and physics?

(2)  In how far are quantitative trends in progressing energy understanding accompanied by a process of knowledge integration that leads students from discipline-specific aspects of energy understanding to an integrated, crosscutting energy concept?


First, a 43-item multiple-choice instrument was developed with the goal to validly assess middle to high school students’ energy understanding in biology, chemistry, and physics context (α = .85). This instrument was then applied to a cross-sectional study with N = 1003 students from grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 in order to receive first insights to progressing energy understanding across disciplinary boundaries.

The results indicate discipline-specific foci with respect to the energy aspects forms/sources, transfer/transformation, degradation/dissipation and energy conservation, while this focus can at least party be attributed to a specialization of energy instruction in the respective subjects. In Figure 2, examples for progressing energy instruction are provided through distractor/attractor selection frequencies in three exemplary items on energy degradation/dissipation.


Fig. 2. Examples for progressing energy understanding in three items on energy degradation in (left to right) one biological, physical and chemistry context. Lines between individual grades are auxiliary, as data in this study are cross-sectional.


The results furthermore show that students’ energy understanding is strongly correlated between disciplinary contexts (rlatent > 0.8). Across grade levels, modeling approaches to students’ cross-disciplinary energy understanding neither exhibit differentiation, nor integration processes across the three contexts. Consequently, we conclude that, across grade levels and across disciplinary contexts, students employ only one energy understanding. However, as integration processes across disciplines cannot be observed, it is furthermore concluded that this energy-understanding is not the intended crosscutting concept (e.g. NRC, 2012), but rather a vague, undifferentiated understanding of energy that is characterized by the application of everyday ideas (e.g. ‘energy loss’) across disciplinary contexts.

If students are expected to develop an integrated energy understanding to analyze complex contents across disciplinary boundaries, future developments of curricula or science standards should place a greater emphasis on the connectedness of energy learning opportunities across disciplinary boundaries.


This study is described in detail in two manuscripts, which are currently under revision. Please contact me for further details ([Email protection active, please enable JavaScript.]).




Study 3: Characteristics of Understanding Energy in Biological Contexts


As the four energy aspects mentioned above (energy forms/sources, transfer/transformation, degradation/dissipation, conservation) are central for understanding energy in the different disciplinary contexts, it is questionable what specific characteristics students attribute to these aspects in the respective disciplines. Study 3 aims to provide insights for this question with regard to biological contexts. Furthermore, this study aims to compare findings on progressing energy understanding from the quantitative studies (1 and 2, see above) with qualitative results from interview analysis in order to extend the quantitative findings by important details.

With respect to these goals, an interview thread by Jin and Anderson (2012) on carbon-transforming processes was extended by specialized questions on the four energy aspects. These questions circled three representative contexts that were also covered by the items in the quantitative studies. N = 30 students at the beginning of grades 5, 7, 9, and 11 provided the sample for this study. With the exception of the 5th graders, all participating students had also answered the questionnaire from the second study (see above) 2.5 months earlier. Thereby, we allowed for a comparability of findings from the two research methodologies.

Students’ interview answers were used to inductively build a hierarchical category system (Mayring 2008, 2010) for each energy aspect (Fleiss‘ k > 0.7). First results show – similar to the quantitative studies – clear progression trends across grade levels with respect to specific conceptions. Further analyses regarding the specific characteristics of understanding the four energy aspects in biology are currently conducted.


These researchers are responsible for the „IPN-Energy Project – Biology(I)“:

Sebastian Opitz

Prof. Dr. Ute Harms

Prof. Dr. Knut Neumann

Sascha Bernholt


 Publications related to this project:

(1) Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K., Bernholt, S. (in press). How Do Students Understand Energy in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics? Development and Validation of an Assessment Instrument. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education.

Download APPENDIX 1 

Download APPENDIX 2 

Download APPENDIX 3

Download APPENDIX 4

(2) Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K, Bernholt, S. (in press). Students’ progressing energy understanding across contexts from biology, chemistry, and physics. Research in Science Education.

(3) Opitz, S., Blankenstein, A., Harms, U. (2016). Student Conceptions about Energy in Biological Contexts. Journal of Biological Education.

(4) Kelpe et al. (2016). Kompetenzorientierung im Sachunterricht [Competency-oriented science teaching]. In U. Harms, B. Schroeter, and B. Klueh (Eds), Entwicklung kompetenzorientierten Unterrichts in Zusammenarbeit von Forschung und Schulpraxis -- komdif und der Hamburger Schulversuch alles>>koenner (Chapter 9, pp. 185-204). Muenster: Waxmann.

(5) Opitz, S. (2016). Students’ Progressing Understanding of the Energy Concept: An analysis of Learning in Biological and Cross-Disciplinary Contexts. Doctoral thesis, Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Kiel University, Germany. 358 pages.
Available online at:;jsessionid=9F309527200977059C43051620591841?lang=en

 (6) Opitz, S., & Opitz, M.-T. (2016). Winterschlaf: Energiesparen als Überlebensstrategie [Hibernation: Energy Saving as a Survival Strategy]. Unterricht Biologie, 40(411), 18-23.

(7) Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K., Kowalzik, K., Frank, A. (2015). Students‘ Energy Concepts at the Transition between Primary and Secondary School. Research in Science Education, 49(5), 691-715. doi 10.1007/s11165-014-9444-8