In science, energy is loosely defined as the ability to do work. It exists in a number of forms – chemical, mechanical, thermal – and is an important scientific concept because it plays a role in all branches of science, including biology, chemistry and physics. That scientific concept – included in science classes from kindergarten to grade 12 – and the skills students must develop to understand it also play an important role in our efforts to build a science-literate energy workforce.
Understanding energy as a scientific concept is a pre-requisite to understanding the demands that will be required to work on innovations ranging from self-driving cars to micro electric grids and zero-emission fuels.
We’re not there yet. Many children hold misconceptions about energy. For example, children often believe energy is “used up”, and once it is used, it disappears. Another misconception is that an object at rest has no energy or is not under any forces. Research also show that older students often have difficulty developing a deep understanding about the basic energy concepts and applying those ideas to everyday situations. A previous study revealed that over half of high school seniors held misconceptions about fundamental ideas regarding energy.
There are several reasons for that: students’ don’t have a deep conceptual understanding of the topic, partly because scientific curriculums tend to focus on established knowledge, and classroom activities emphasize students’ confirmation of this knowledge. The focus on standardized testing, which largely emphasizes scientific facts instead of engaging in the scientific process, pressures teachers to prepare students for fact-focused assessments. This can result in more teacher-directed instruction, which is in opposition to research that calls for providing time for students to experiment and participate in authentic scientific processes leading to discovery of both scientific facts and the scientific experience.
While the emphasis on scientific fact may lead to students’ knowledge of discrete information, it also results in a reduced understanding of scientific phenomena. For example, students may know Newton’s laws of motion, but they may not understand how or why the laws work.
What does all this have to do with today’s energy demands and the needs of a skilled workforce that can lead us into the future? It comes down to critical thinking. Students who can’t understand energy as a scientific concept will be less prepared to lead the technical and policy transformations required to power a growing world.
Already the industry is grappling with demands to produce more energy for an energy-hungry world while also looking for new and better ways to reduce the harmful emissions from that fuel. Policymakers and financiers are considering the tradeoffs of nuclear energy – emission-free but burdened with high costs, safety concerns and the lack of permanent storage for spent nuclear rods – and other potential ways to power modern life.
Even people who don’t work in the industry need to understand these concepts in order to make smart choices about the cars they drive, the appliances they purchase and, in states with deregulated energy markets, the electricity providers they choose to power their homes.
Providing students with inquiry-based experiences that foster critical thinking can help. That type of active learning engages students in questioning, planning and implementing investigations, analyzing data and generating conclusions using critical thinking. Scientific inquiry promotes opportunities for students to think and act like scientists, to relate evidence with explanations, formulate scientific arguments and defend scientific conclusions.
Critical thinking is crucial if we are to prepare students to be energy innovators of tomorrow. According to the late Richard Paul, research director of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking involves considering multiple perspectives, scrutinizing implications, engaging in arguments to justify claims with evidence and reasoning, and re-examining findings or conclusions when new data emerges.
To nurture future energy innovators and develop critical thinking in science classrooms, Jonathan Osborne of Stanford University recommends that:
- Students engage in questioning, analysis and critique to develop their science understanding and reasoning skills.
- Space and time is provided to challenge or assess scientific knowledge.
- Students critically compare evidence with predications and observations through argument to remain as objective as possible.
- Teachers and peers reveal and respond to students’ preconceptions, and misconceptions, of scientific topics.
Students also should participate in scientific argumentation, a process that helps scientists cultivate better explanations of phenomena through debate, modified to develop consensus for scientific ideas based on evidence. One way to do this is by having students engage in Claims, Evidence, Reasoning and Rebuttal (CERR). Students make claims, which are statements that answer a scientific question or problem, with evidence and sufficient scientific data to support the claim. This is all tied with reasoning, which is the justification that connects the evidence with the claim. Reasoning must also show why the data is appropriate to support the claim by using scientific ideas and principles to support the connection between the data and the evidence. Additionally, students can include rebuttal. According to Katherine L. McNeill of Boston College, the rebuttal is when students propose an alternative claim and provide counterevidence and reasoning for why the initial claim is inappropriate or inaccurate. Rebuttal requires critical thinking to consider evidence from different perspectives and frames-of-mind in order to formulate the best claim that fits the evidence with reasoning.
This isn’t just educational theory, of interest to teachers and other educators. It has major implications for the future.
To develop the energy innovators of tomorrow, we must prepare students with increasingly sophisticated knowledge about the concept of energy and the energy industry. It is critical for students to be involved in authentic scientific experiences that foster the critical thinking skills and habits-of-mind that can create, analyze, scrutinize issues and propose solutions to the energy needs of our world.
Sissy Wong is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on science teacher induction, science teacher knowledge, as well as highly effective science instruction with English Language Learners. She teaches science methods courses that focus on pedagogical content knowledge, ambitious science practices and nature of science at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Wong received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in science education from Arizona State University.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.