Beyond Forms : Findings from a new Approach to teaching Energy in Middle School

Energy is an important concept across the sciences and for physics in particular. However, only few students develop an understanding of energy that includes the critical aspect of conservation and is well-organized. How- ever, having well-organized ideas about energy is a prerequisite for applying that knowledge to make sense of phenomena. While the difficulty of energy for students is well established, there is vigorous debate about how to teach energy. The conceptual foundation of traditional forms-based instruction has been challenged time and again. As an alternative to forms, a transfer-only perspective that does not require forms and emphasizes the connections between energy, systems, and fields has been proposed. This position has also been adopted by the Framework for K- 12 Science Education (NRC, 2012). However, neither the Framework for K-12 Science Education nor the scholars that have argued for transfer-only ap- proaches have provided any guidance for how the instructional challenge of introducing energy, systems, and fields – all difficult ideas – in introductory energy instruction, that is, in middle school, can be approached. As part of the ELeVATE project (Exploring Potential Trajectories for the Energy Concept in Middle School), a transfer-only unit was developed, following the princi- ples of project-based learning. Drawing on data from the ELeVATE project, this dissertation investigates how students build ideas about energy in the transfer-only unit and how they can be supported in doing so. The findings indicate that students successfully build a well-organized understanding of energy, including a qualitative notion of energy conserva- tion, that allows them to use this knowledge to make sense of various phe- nomena. This suggests reconsidering the paradigm of energy learning progres- sions having to go through forms, highlights the power of coherent curriculum that project-based learning facilitates, and underlines the importance of hav- ing well-organized knowledge for being able to apply that knowledge.


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