Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Elementary Students' Ideas concerning Fossil Fuel Energy

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Elementary Students' Ideas concerning Fossil Fuel Energy

Article excerpt


Forty-two academically gifted and thirty-two average-achieving elementary students in grades one through six were interviewed to determine ideas concerning fossil fuel energy. There were no significant differences between the responses of the two populations. Major categories of misconceptions encountered during interviews included misconceptions about: configuration or distribution of petroleum reservoirs, gasoline manufacture and storage, the origin of petroleum, the importance of petroleum in our society, petroleum prospecting and recovery; and the nature of coal and natural gas.

Misconceptions about fossil fuels arise for a variety of reasons. Students sometimes misunderstand scenes from movies, televisions shows or cartoons, make incorrect analogies with more familiar experiences, misinterpret diagrams in printed materials, misconstrue the meanings of symbols, or confuse similar-sounding terms or words with more than one meaning.

Sixty-seven preservice teachers responding to a ten-question survey to investigate the persistence of fossil fuel misconceptions into adulthood revealed many held the same ideas as elementary students, confirming the importance of addressing younger students' ideas during instruction.


Energy is a central factor in world economy and politics. Consequently, energy has also become an important topic in science education. Students need to understand energy sources, production, storage and transport, conservation, and usage so that they can make future intelligent decisions in voting, consumption, and recycling. Of even greater importance to our planet are the environmental changes caused by the mining and burning of fossil fuels. Comprehension of this complex issue begins with an understanding of the origin, composition, recovery, and uses of fossil fuels in energy production and manufacturing. Because adult consumers and voters impact political and environmental practices related to fossil fuel energy, science educators' task in conveying these energy concepts well is important.

The Importance of Students' Preexisting Ideas -According to constructivist learning theory, students actively construct meaning from their experiences, using their existing conceptual frameworks (Wubbels, 1992). Mental models of how the world works are unique to the observer and not always easily uncovered. Models may be inconsistent and students may believe one thing, but verbalize another (Glynn & Duit, 1995), perhaps in response to facts they have memorized. Teachers need to investigate student ideas and find ways to incorporate these viewpoints into a learning-teaching dialogue. Student beliefs that contradict those widely accepted by the scientific community are often persistent and reappear if not addressed directly.

Eryilmaz (2002), reviewing ideas of Nachtigall (as cited in Van Rise, 1988) and Brouwer (1984), suggests these steps for addressing students' beliefs that are inconsistent with scientific understanding. First, make sure students are aware of their beliefs, then ask students to formulate hypotheses with their ideas and test them. Confront students with cases where their beliefs do not adequately explain phenomena, ensuring that students are aware or the conflict. Help students find and accommodate new understandings, applying them to new situations to see the power of this information. Cultivate students' confidence in their new abilities, and finally, assess their scientific understanding.

In this article, I will use the term "preconception" to indicate student's beliefs about fossil fuels before formal instruction on the topic and "misconception" to refer to those ideas that contradict scientific understanding. Student preconceptions and misconceptions concerning energy concepts have been well documented and analyzed from a physics, rather than geoscience, point of view (Lewis and Linn 1994, Kesidou and Duit 1993, Trumper and Gorsky 1993, Kruger, Palacio and Summers 1992, Boyes and Stanisstreet 1991, Kruger 1990, Lijnse 1990, Gair and Stancliffe 1988, Solomon 1985,1983, Watts 1983, Watts and Gilbert 1983). …

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