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Keywords:

  • physics;
  • nature of science (NOS);
  • curriculum development

Abstract

The aim of this study is to explore the ways in which students, aged 11–14 years, account for certain changes in physical systems and the extent to which they draw on an energy model as a common framework for explaining changes observed in diverse systems. Data were combined from two sources: interviews with 20 individuals and an open-ended questionnaire that was administered to 240 students (121 upper elementary school students and 119 middle school students). We observed a wealth of approaches ranging from accounts of energy transfer and transformation to responses identifying specific objects or processes as the cause of changes. The findings also provide evidence that students do not seem to appreciate the transphenomenological and unifying nature of energy. Students' thinking was influenced by various conceptual difficulties that are compounded by traditional science teaching; for instance, students tended to confuse energy with force or electric current. In addition, the comparison between the responses from middle school students and those of elementary school students demonstrates that science teaching and maturation appeared to have a negligible influence on whether students had constructed a coherent energy model, which they could use consistently to account for changes in certain physical systems. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 45: 444–469, 2008