Students’ understanding of energy: Acting out our thinking (#aaptsm10)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 21, 2010

At the AAPT meeting, the folks from Seattle Pacific University have taken one session by storm, to discuss their thinking and experimentation on students’ idea of energy.  They’re working, in particular, on embodied cognition — learning activities that involve the body to symbolically engage in a scientific problem.

Lane Seeley opened out with the claim that there is a real disconnect between the type of energy that we teach about (chemical, potential, kinetic, etc.) and the energy that we care about (Red Bull, SUV’s, wind and solar energy, etc.).  There is, of course, a connection between the two, but we need to help students to build that bridge. Looking around on YouTube he found that young people are spending time, not just taking video of interesting things related to energy, but also having interesting discussions in the comments section of each video.  By looking around at YouTube, he suggested, we can find out what kinds of energy students care about, and see them having (sometimes) productive discussion about those ideas.  For an example, take a look at any of the YouTube videos on the Gaussian Gun.

Sam McKagan described an activity that they’ve created called energy theater. A box is pushed across the floor by a person’s hand.  Our task is to describe what happens in that process.  Each person is a chunk of energy — some people are the energy in the hand, some are in the box.  Each has to describe their energy (chemical, kinetic, potential) with sign language or a colored card.  Different areas in the room correspond to different parts of the scenario — one part of the room is the floor.  They then act out what happens in that process. You can do this with a variety of different types of energy scenarios:  The box is shoved, a box is pulled to the edge of a table by a pulley system, etc.

There are two main models of energy — energy as activation (“I’m energized” or “I have energy”), or energy as substance (the body is a chunk of energy).    Energy as activation can really support a qualitative sense of energy as something that gets things going.  Energy as substance suupports quantitative thinking about energy, and ideas of conservation.  Energy theater forces the idea of energy as a substance – people don’t appear or disappear (so energy is conserved), people place themselves in different areas of the room (energy is located in the body).

Since we understand our world in terms of bodily experiences, and research suggests that it’s helpful to take on the role of an entity for figuring things out, this is a promising approach for conceptual learning in physics. This seems to help students get in touch with the ideas of energy in a way that other representations don’t allow.

Eleanor Close talked about how these activities let us communicate in a wider variety of ways than normal classroom activities do.  For instance, two soccer players having an argument are communicating through words, tone, gesture, posture, symbols (like a referee caard).  A lot of these options aren’t available in a classroom, where students are fixed in place and facing one direction.  Tutorials or small groups have less restriction, but words are still the main way that people communicate meaning in those environments.  Energy theater, on the other hand, allow participants to make use of many more modes of meaning — symbols (cards indicating their type of energy), body orientation, posture, and more.

For example, a box is shoved suddenly across the floor, with energy transferring from the hand to the box.  What happens then?  Participants communicate what they think is happenening.  For example, the participants try to determine what will happen to the energy in the hand as the hand begins to push the box:

“When we push, we turn to green.”

They turn their cards to indicate a change from chemical to kinetic energy.  So, the words suggest that she sees themselves as chunks of energy, changing form. Their symbols, of colored cards, allow them to see if the other people in the room agree (i.e., if they’re flipping their cards to green too).  The teacher also emphasized the word “green”, encouraging others to follow her lead.  All these different modes of communication that participants use during energy theater give us a much richer ability to assess the outcomes of these activities.

Hunter Close then discussed how these activities promote empathy with a hypothetical entity (i.e., energy). Physicists discuss physics in odd ways sometimes.  They’ll say things where they’re clearly identifying as a physicist “I made these measurements” or where they’re talking about an inanimate object, “When it comes down, it’s in the domain state.  But they say odd things that are in between the two:  “When I come down, I’m in the domain state.”  These weird grammatical constructions were not confusing to the physicists.  We do this all the time — we look on a map and say “we are here”.  But no, we’re in this room, in truth.  Still, this kind of talk happens a lot.  This is called “indeterminate construction.”  The original researcher (Ochs, 1996) who looked at how physicists do this suggested that by using these constructions, they’re taking on the role of something that they’re struggling to understand.  It lets us take on the role of something that we’re not, and is especially useful when we’re trying to figure something out as a group.  It’s particularly helpful when were looking at a graphic representation together and trying to make sense of it.  So, what energy theater does is to take on this tool that scientists do and use it in instruction.  Energy theater is designed to involve participants symbolically in the thing that they’re trying to understand.  What he’s found is that when learners pretend to be the energy, they create much more complex diagrams of the scenario than they did when simply discussing energy in the abstract.  What scientists generally do is to understand the natural world, and draw a diagram to represent their understanding of that natural world, and engage with each other symbolically in trying to understand that diagram.  But for new learners, we’re going the other direction — we have the learners engage symbolically in the natural world in order to understand it, and then draw a diagram to represent that understanding after they’ve engaged in that symbolic representation.

Rachel Scherr discussed how these physical activities get cognition out of the head, letting us observe thinking a new way. Consider the scenario where a person is pushing a box on a frictionless surface.  Energy travels from the hand to the box, with none going into the floor.  So, what needs to happen is that some of the chemical energy units in the hand must go into kinetic energy, and then some of those kinetic energy units in the hand must travel to the box.  This is fairly complicated to act out as a group.  How do they figure out what to do so that everything comes out right?  They designated one person to tag people to change from chemical to kinetic energy, and to go from the hand to the box.  A certain kind of tap meant to change form, and another kind of tag meant to move from the hand to the box.  This made the decisions and ideas of the group visible, so that the group and observers could discuss just what was happening during the process of transferring energy.  So, her point is what this group activity does is to take cognition out of an individual’s head, and make it physically explicit in the group’s activities — so we can directly observe the group’s thinking in a way that we can’t when people are just figuring things out on their own.

Very interesting ideas — preliminary, but with promise.


Fran July 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I was so glad I went to this session! Of course I immediately thought “Hey! I should do this with my conceptual-level HS kids!” and then I thought “hmm, I wonder if this works for conservation of momentum as well as conservation of energy?” Unfortunately I had to go catch the MAX to the airport right afterward, but these energy plays are definitely thought-provoking and I’m hoping to try them!

drklassen July 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

I, too, liked this session. One comment I wanted to make was that it seems like it could naturally lead to the concept of quantized energy—since they are, as “chunks of energy” quantized without really knowing it. So I could envision using this method to discuss atomic energy level jumps (absorption and emission) perhaps.

sciencegeekgirl July 25, 2010 at 9:26 pm

So I could envision using this method to discuss atomic energy level jumps (absorption and emission) perhaps.

Yes, what a nice observation! They did make the point during that session, and others, that envisioning energy as “chunks” to be exchanged, rather than something that “activates” or “causes things to happen” was a useful representations. You’ve given us another example of how that’s the case. Thanks!

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