Academic journal article Science Educator

Gravity, Magnetism, and "Down": Non-Physics College Students' Conceptions of Gravity

Academic journal article Science Educator

Gravity, Magnetism, and "Down": Non-Physics College Students' Conceptions of Gravity

Article excerpt

This study concentrates on exploring non-science majors' conceptual understanding of gravity and how they use this understanding while solving problems involving gravity.

I. Introduction

This study investigates college students ' ideas of gravity in the context of an entry-level geology course in a North American university. The concept of gravity is central to many sciences, and level of understanding of gravity will influence how people apply knowledge from one domain to another. For example, students who believe that gravity only occurs on Earth may have difficulty applying geological principles to concepts in planetary geology. Entry-level college geology instruction assumes an understanding of fundamental physical science concepts such as atoms, friction, gravity, and density. These basic concepts provide an essential foundation for building students' sophisticated understanding of advanced geological concepts . Mass wasting, for example, is a geologic concept that describes the movement of material under the influence of gravity alone. As a consequence, understanding fundamentals of gravity can dramatically impact how students understand and internalize mass wasting concepts taught in a typical physical geology course. We set out to investigate how students enrolled in entry-level geology, most of whom would graduate from college without university-level physics courses, thought about and applied the concept of gravity while solving problems concerning gravity. The repercussions of students' gravity concepts are then considered in the context of non-physics courses, including implications for reform efforts in physics. Data were collected during the second week of an eleven-week term from two courses with an average enrollment of just over 100 students. Based on research literature (Claxton, 1993; diSessa, 1983; Vosniadou, 1994) and one author's experience of teaching this population of students, we hypothesized that students would have fragmented and loosely connected ideas about gravity.

II. Research Context

The investigation of children's and adolescents' ideas about various scientific models and the nature of science is a long-standing and welldeveloped area of research (Driver, 1985; Driver, Squires, Rushworth, & Wood-Robinson, 1994). Although a few well-known studies have extended this work to include adults, including college students and in-service teachers, there is very little research on the conceptual understanding of gravity on the parts of adults (Gunstone & White, 1981; Hestenes, Wells, & Swackhamer, 1992). In addition, the importance of physical concepts in understanding other sciences suggests that investigation of gravity ideas in related disciplines will have implications for the teaching of physics in both high school and college.

Existing literature on younger students provides a useful backdrop for framing our study of college students enrolled in entry-level geology courses . Gravity-related studies focus on students' ideas of the relationship between gravity/gravitational force and other important concepts in physical science such as height, weight , or velocity .Additionally, some have also examined how children relate orientation ("up" and "down") with reference to the Earth in space to weight and gravity (Driver, et al . , 1 994; Sneider & Pulos, 1983). Studies have been conducted in K-college settings (Nussbaum, 1 976; Trumper &Grosky, 1997) and in a variety of countries (Mali& Howe, 1979; Sneider& Pulos, 1983;Za'Rour, 1975). The majority of studies conducted in college settings incorporate the concept of gravity into the study of students' force concepts, rather than explicitly studying gravity ideas themselves (Hestenes et al . , 1 992; Sadanand & Kess , 1 990) . Kavanaugh and Sneider (2006-2007) provide a thorough review of relevant literature on gravity conceptions; we elaborate on those studies of most importance here. …

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