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Fostering knowledge about energy in biological, interdisciplinary, and social contexts

Energy is a fundamental concept for explaining scientific phenomena and is of immense relevance to all of the natural sciences. Conceptual knowledge about energy could be a necessary prerequisite for participation in socially relevant challenges in the future. Therefore, a major task for scientific education is to help students to develop accurate conceptual knowledge about the core ideas of energy. However, teaching and learning these core ideas poses a major challenge, which is mainly due to the abstract nature of the energy concept.

Current cooperation project: ReNEW/LV Energy Transition (Hanno Michel)

Current subproject III: Enhancing conceptual knowledge about energy in the context of climate change (Dirk Mittenzwei).

Climate change and energy transition are two social challenges that are closely linked to each other and to conceptual knowledge about energy. The following studies will examine which conceptual knowledge about energy is necessary for explaining climate change and whether climate change is suited as a thematic context to convey conceptual knowledge about energy.

Study 1: Conceptual knowledge about energy and climate change  A summary of the state of research on the connection between these concepts.

Climate change is one of the most important socio-political challenges of this century. The causes are as complex as the possible solutions. Energy transition is located at the center of these solutions. The term energy transition already suggests that climate change is basically a problem related to energy. In order to explain climate change, however, it is not enough to link its emergence to the use of fossil energy sources. In order to explain climate change, a wide range of scientific knowledge is required. Conceptual knowledge of energy plays an important role here. Above all, knowledge about energy transfer and energy conversion could be very significant in explaining climate change. Among other things, these energy aspects are needed to explain the greenhouse effect and the spatial distribution patterns of climate change. In order to better assess the role of these energy aspects, a systematic literature review will examine the current state of educational research on the connection between conceptual knowledge about energy and climate change.


Completed subproject II: Enhancing Conceptual Knowledge about Energy through Representations (Ulrike Wernecke).

Energy is a fundamental explanatory model for scientific phenomena and an abstract concept of immense relevance to all natural sciences. Conceptual knowledge about energy is a necessary prerequisite for participation in socially relevant challenges such as the German energy transition.  Therefore, it is a major task for scientific education to help students develop a sound conceptual understanding of the core idea of energy. The energy concept is structured around four aspects: (1) forms and sources of energy, (2) transfer and transformation, (3) energy degradation, and (4) energy conservation. Due to its abstractness, teaching and learning of the energy concept is challenging. A variety of studies has shown that students have a limited understanding of energy (e.g., Opitz, Harms, Neumann, Kowalzik & Frank, 2015) and even advanced students maintain multiple alternative conceptions regarding the energy concept (e.g., for biology: Burger, 2001). A central question in regard to school teaching is therefore which instructional tools are effective for fostering the development of a sophisticated understanding of energy. In this context, the studies of my doctoral project deal with the use of selected representations. The effectiveness of learning with representations is crucially influenced by the particular design of the learning material, as well as the learning activity (Ainsworth, 2006). Both aspects influence the cognitive activation of the learner, which is a key criterion for the quality of instruction.

Study 1: “How is Energy Represented in Biology Textbooks?  Development of a Category System and Exemplary Analysis of a Textbook Series

Correct and suitable teaching material is important for teaching and learning about energy. The first study aims at the development and testing of a category system to describe the representation of energy in biology textbooks. A category system was compiled on the basis of theoretical frameworks from research on energy conceptions and cognitive psychology. In order to evaluate the coding scheme and to get a first insight into the representation of energy, texts, pictures, and tasks of a biology textbook series for lower and upper secondary school were analyzed. The coding scheme turned out to be an appropriate analysis tool. The results show that for all grade levels, forms and transformation of energy are frequently addressed, whereas degradation and conservation are infrequently represented. Pictures in the textbook series were found to employ design features that are considered beneficial for learning. There is room for improvement regarding the tasks.

Study 2: “Using an Incorrect Representation to Enhance the Understanding of Energy in Biology  An Intervention Study”

The second study of this dissertation project evaluates an instructional tool for biology education that is meant to foster the understanding of energy. The instructional tool combines two teaching strategies: learning from errors and learning through representations. An intervention study with a 2 x 3 pretest-posttest design explores whether learning with an incorrect energy flow diagram enhances students’ understanding of energy. The error inserted into the diagram targets widespread alternative conceptions. After a standardized lecture on energy flow in ecosystems, students were randomly assigned to one of three different learning materials that comprised tasks and (i) an incorrect diagram, (ii) an incorrect diagram with help (error already encircled) or (iii) a correct diagram. Pre- and posttests assessed the understanding of energy. From September to December 2015, N = 325 ninth graders from 12 academic track schools (“Gymnasien”) in northern Germany participated in the study. The results are currently evaluated. If the results are favorable for an intervention build on representations and learning from errors, further incorrect representations could be developed, evaluated, and included into teaching materials in order to foster the understanding of the energy concept.

Study 3: “Metaphors Describing Energy Transfer in Ecosystems – Analysis of Scientific and Students’ Perspectives”

The use of metaphors is considered to make abstract concepts such as energy more accessible to students (Kattmann, 2015). Metaphors, as well as visualizations, belong to the group of external representations (Tsui & Treagust, 2013). The third study of my doctoral project deals with metaphors used in the context of energy transfer in ecosystems. The model of educational reconstruction (Kattmann, Duit, Gropengießer & Komorek, 1997) serves as a theoretical framework. In order to clarify the science content, metaphors of energy transfer through ecosystems (e.g., “energy flow”, “loss of energy”) are examined separately and in relation to each other. The empirical data that we use to investigate students’ perspectives were collected in study 2. A research goal is to examine which metaphors students use in their descriptions of the energy transfer diagram and whether the application is adequate from a scientific point of view. The results will subsequently be used to derive implications for using these metaphors in biology instruction.

(1) Wernecke, U., Schwanewedel, J., & Harms, U. (2017). Metaphors describing energy transfer through ecosystems: Helpful or misleading? Science Education, 102(1), 178–194. doi: 10.1002/sce.21316
(2) Wernecke, U., Schwanewedel, J., Schütte, K., & Harms, U. (2016). Wie wird Energie im Biologieschulbuch dargestellt? Entwicklung eines Kategoriensystems und exemplarische Anwendung auf eine Schulbuchreihe. Zeitschrift für Didaktik der Naturwissenschaften, 22(1), 215–229. doi: 10.1007/s40573-016-0051-2


Completed subproject I: Progressing Energy Understanding in Biological Contexts and Learning about Energy across Disciplinary Boundaries (Dr. Sebastian Opitz).

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. (2015). Students‘ Energy Concepts at the Transition between Primary and Secondary School. Research in Science Education, 45(5), 691–715. 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 (until 04/2016)
Prof. Dr. Ute Harms
Prof. Dr. Knut Neumann
Sascha Bernholt

 Publications related to this project:

(1) Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K., Bernholt, S. (2017a). 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, 13(7), 3019–3042. doi:10.12973/eurasia.2017.00703a

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(2) Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K, Bernholt, S. (2017b). Students’ progressing energy understanding across contexts from biology, chemistry, and physics. Research in Science Education. doi:10.1007/s11165-017-9632-4

(3) Opitz, S., Blankenstein, A., Harms, U. (2016). Student Conceptions about Energy in Biological Contexts. Journal of Biological Education, 51(4), 427–440. doi:10.1080/00219266.2016.1257504

(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