Unlearning Scientific Misconceptions

January 8, 2012

In an eye-opening video clip available  though Annenberg Learner, we see Harvard graduates unable to complete to complete a simple experiment taught in third-grade: how to light a lightbulb with a wire.  A one-hour video from the same series (“From Thin Air”)  shows the Harvard graduates unable to explain basic concepts about plant growth, and then goes on to investigate the sources of common misconceptions that prevent learning from elementary school on.

Misconceptions arise when students are confronted with scientific concepts that are counterintuitive. For example, many students never truly grasp the idea that the weight of a tree is mostly carbon absorbed from CO2. They have heard teachers explain photosynthesis but since they don’t believe that air has weight, they consistently assume the weight in a tree trunk must come from the water, or soil or minerals…something that has weight. Show them dry ice; a form of CO2 that clearly has weight and they are very surprised! This is an example of a discrepant event.

According to Binghamton University Professor Thomas O’Brien, experiencing a discrepant event, with its surprising, counterintuitive outcome “creates cognitive disequilibrium that temporarily throws learners mentally off-balance”. In his book, Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events” (NSTA Press, 2010), O’Brien describes 33 hands-on activities that can lead students and teachers to question their implicit assumptions.

Effective inquiry teaching begins by finding out what students already know, including their misconceptions, and then guiding them to questions their assumptions and discover new knowledge for themselves.

As we all know too well, what typically happens in the classroom is that teachers “cover material” and students try to memorize as much as they can. Even hands-on labs often do not challenge students to solve problems and question assumptions. Some students are very good at memorizing and repeating information (the Harvard graduates in the video clip, for example) and others fail miserably, but neither is really developing a deep understanding of concepts, or learning science. Research shows that more is not better, when it comes to exposing students volumes of detailed information through lectures or textbooks.  The brain learns through making connections to prior knowledge, so dispelling misconception is an essential prerequisite for new learning.

See Dr. O’Brian’s keynote address: Misconceptions Matter: Where Do They Come From? Where Do They Go? at the Central Western Section STANYS Winter Workshop at Nazareth College, Feb. 9, 2012

Darling, Dowdle, and Wright working together at Bloomfield High School

April 10, 2009
Bloomfield High School Fitness Room

Bloomfield High School Fitness Room

At the 2008 RAC-CEMS Collaboration Event, a three-teacher team was recognized for their Excellence in STEM Teaching. Ed Darling, Mike Dowdle, and John Wright have synthesized a unique Integrated Physics-Biology-Technology learning experience for high school seniors.

The focus of the study: the school’s fitness center. The parameters for the activity are that students must develop a research question for study, develop a plan for data collection and analysis, and plan with their group how to best work together to complete the tasks.

The students presented their projects in the form of their own “Mythbusters” video episodes, to show they had applied what they had learned in class to solve a real world problem. According to Ed Darling, an eye opening experience was, “Watching students who in class often are only minimally engaged in traditional learning activities take on leadership roles when given a learning opportunity that matched their preferred style”.

Each team was comprised of three students; one specalizing in each subject matter. The team of teachers was supported by their administration who allowed them to alter the schedules of the students for the day in order to complete the project.

Thank you Mr. Darling, Mr. Dowdle, and Mr. Wright for your commitment to excellence in STEM teaching, and sharing your project with the community!

The Science of Holiday Eating

January 8, 2009


This morning, National Public Radio outlined several biological changes overeating may cause in our bodies. Even if guilty of such indulgences, an awareness of them will help curb the pattern instead of prolonging it into the new year. Here is a summary of what Patti Neighmond, NPR corespondent said:

  1. Overeating interrupts internal clockworks: you may not sleep as well, and are prone to midnight snacking.
  2. A diet full of sugary foods will send your body mixed signals: an increase in the amount of “hormones and metabolic processes” confuses your body and can result in dramatic changes of blood sugar levels.
  3. Your stomach may be confused: repeated overeating wares out tissues located at the top of your stomach. These tissues sends a signal to the brain that your stomach is full… tired tissues do not send the message, and consequently, you may not know you are full.

When recovering from holiday celebrations, stop and think of the sciences behind your body: anatomy, biology, chemistry, etc. The intricate connection of individual body systems functions best when fueled with healthy foods and drinks. Celebrate January with a fresh salad! Raise your fork high and celebrate science with each bite!!!