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Shaking off sticky science misconceptions

To some people’s knowledge, the moon is malleable, water evaporates into oxygen and plants rely on food given to them from the soil, not the energy from the sun’s rays.

These are some of the misconceptions held by students that science teachers have to deal with from elementary school up through college. The science education department headed the CSULB College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ second “Fellows Colloquium” at Cal State Long Beach this semester, which discussed the roots of these misconceptions and how to dislodge them.

The presentation, “The science you ‘know’ that just ain’t so,” given by Susan Gomez-Zwiep, an assistant professor in the science education department, had full attendance from all faculty in the department.

Gomez-Zwiep, the principal investigator on two studies focusing on elementary science education, using close to $2 million in research funds, has observed common misconceptions throughout students in California’s public schools, common reasons for these misconceptions and teachers’ struggles to rid their students of these misconceptions.

“When personal knowledge structures are not the same as scientific ones, that’s what we call a misconception,” Gomez-Zwiep said.

Students are not necessarily lacking the knowledge, or have gaps in their knowledge base because, “if there was nothing there, it would be a lot easier to deal with,” Gomez-Zwiep said.

According to Gomez-Zwiep, students cling to their personally-constructed misconceptions regardless of what is taught to them in their science classes because it is knowledge that makes more sense to them — It makes them feel more comfortable.

For example, it was said that many individuals, including adults, believe the seasons change as the earth’s distance from the sun fluctuates. For many, this makes more sense when looking at the earth’s oval-like orbit around the sun.

According to Gomez-Zwiep, misconceptions usually have to do with developmental stages, “and then there are those that continue on as an adult.” Some concepts are too abstract for certain ages and the misconceptions will eventually dissipate.

Teachers reported to Gomez-Zwiep that they felt hands-on experiments were the best way to correct any misconceptions. But, Gomez-Zwiep said, this measure would often only lead students to interpret the information in ways that fit with their misconception.

Tisha Voeller, a history teacher at Garden Grove High School and colloquium attendee, said many teachers struggle to correct family-based misconceptions.

Students think, “Do I trust my teacher or do I trust my parent?” Voeller said.

Gomez-Zwiep’s advice to professors is to look at students who are doing well in the class, and to always ask them, “How do you know?”

“What you know is only as good as how you know it,” Gomez-Zwiep said, emphasizing that it is one thing to know science versus doing science and understanding how it actually works, not just the technical terms.

No differences were found between the rural public schools and urban public schools in Gomez-Zwiep’s studies.

Audience members said California curriculum is another setback making it difficult to spend enough time clearing up misconceptions due to curriculum schedules. And at the university level, classroom size and funding also factor in.

“Multiple choice tests are a poor way to understand what students understand, but when you have to teach more than 100 students in a class, it’s the only thing you can do without harming your health,” said George Kuck, a CSULB lecturer in physics and astronomy.

Regardless of all the difficulties in fixing students’ misconceptions in the sciences, “A student’s failure is a teacher’s failure,” Gomez-Zwiep said. “I am ultimately responsible as the instructor for the success of every student.”

Alumni, faculty and the campus community are invited to the colloquiums to publicize what is going on in the department, for fundraising purposes and because “it’s really important we maintain these strong connections [with alumni],” for the benefit of students, said Laura Kingsford, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Kingsford cited CSULB as “The best example of integrating teaching and research.” CSULB works with 12 school districts in the region, several community colleges and aquariums.

The fellowship, in the beginning of its second year, has grown to more than 50 members.

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