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.

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