Researcher wins national funding to explore why young children are stumped by science

October 10, 2007

How do children form their beliefs about the physical world, and why is there one aspect that they just get wrong? It's a question that Heidi Kloos, University of Cincinnati assistant professor of psychology, is exploring as children play a water game in her lab. Now, the National Science Foundation has awarded Kloos $708,495 to explore her findings even further as part of an NSF program called Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE).

In the UC Psychology Department's Children's Cognitive Research Lab, Kloos plays a sinking game with four-and-five year old children, showing them objects and asking them which one will sink the fastest in a big water tank. "I haven't seen one child who says, 'I don't know,'" says Kloos. "They're very quick at saying, 'This one's going to be the winner!'"

What the children are calling the winner is the biggest object, which doesn't mean it's the fastest to sink. There's also the child's certainty that the heavy rock always sinks faster than the light rock. This confusion over the concept of density - a function of both mass and volume - is what's called naïve physics. The children have an instant answer and there's no doubt in their minds. But, it's not the correct answer.

"Children show a surprising resistance to changing their mistaken beliefs, and spontaneous emergence of correct beliefs is rare," writes Kloos in her grant proposal. "Recent findings in basic cognition shed light on the source of this problem. They indicate a child's misconceptions, rather than being a stable part of the child's knowledge, are an attempt to organize and make sense of the immediate context in which the child acts."

Kloos says her findings suggest that an alternative teaching approach might help children navigate these waters more smoothly, and funding from the grant will explore ways to fill the knowledge gap. "This gap is an important problem because without understanding the source of children's misconceptions, successful interventions to improve science learning have to be determined on a trial-and-error basis," states Kloos' proposal.

Kloos adds that although physics typically isn't taught at the elementary age level, children are forming their concepts at this age, so alternative teaching approaches could help children across a range of ages overcome their misconceptions about physics - keeping them on track in the science race that has taken on a global significance.

University of Cincinnati

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