Surveys on the Energy Concept

Cortez Deacetis

Figure 3. Terms mentioned as form of energy

First of all, it is noticeable, that forms of energy were mixed up with energy carriers, energy converters and other aspects in every cohort. The more advanced the educational biography, the more different terms were written down – even though they do not always correspond to the question: While electric energy is the most frequently mentioned term in the group of primary school pupils (P) and secondary school pupils in the age between ten and fourteen years (S1), other forms of energy are also mentioned with about equal frequency in the higher educated groups (S2, S3). For example, the term chemical energy is found for the first time in cohort S2 and occupies almost the same position as electric energy. The term chemical energy is also revisited in the group S3.

It remains unclear at this point which terms have been assimilated to their energy concept by the students in different age groups by their everyday life experiences or have been introduced in the school context on purpose. Looking at the trends in the terms mentioned along the educational biography, it seems that terms that are more familiar from everyday life are initially listed in the context of energy by younger students, before this pool of terms is increasingly supplemented by scientific forms of energy. Here it is remarkable that existing terms are supplemented by others, but not replaced. Electric energy, light energy, nuclear energy and kinetic energy seem to be the forms of energy, that children are already familiar with from their everyday lives. As the children from cohort P have been taking part in a longer program hosted by the VDI one can assume that their knowledge in this field is broader than that of other primary school children.

The concept of energy is used in various scientific subjects at school. At this point, in the questionnaire the cohorts S1 and S2 were explicitly asked which forms of energy they know from chemistry lessons (Table 2, question 4).

In this closed question, answer options were deliberately given that are not related to the scientific energy concept, for example muscle power. The results are shown in Table 7. The numbers in parentheses indicate the percentage corrected for the abstentions. Some respondents actually chose inaccurate terms. For example, in the cohort S2 about 30 % named muscle power as a form of energy known from chemistry lessons. Compared to this, light energy was chosen alarmingly seldom. It is also surprising that not all S2 learners marked electric energy, as they must have dealt with electrochemistry and applications in batteries and accumulators in previous chemistry lessons.

3.2.3. Ideas about Future Energy Supply

All students were questioned about their ideas about future energy supply. Primary school pupils (P) and pre-service teachers (S3) were interviewed using a closed question, the others (S1, S2) using an open question (Table 2, question 7). The response to the closed question (Table 8) makes very clear, that the majority of P and even S3 assumes that the energy supply will change in the future. Providing energy by wind power and solar panels seemed to be the most likely scenario to both cohorts. Also, in both groups using biological fuel cells to convert chemical energy out of waste into electric energy seemed more plausible than using methane or hydrogen as energy storage, which is surprising as the latter topic is more prominent in everyday media.

The cohorts S1 and S2 have expressed their ideas about future energy supply in their own words. Complete sentences were not always formed, sometimes only keywords were added. Clustering the terms and summing up the frequencies of them being mentioned therefore seemed to be a legitimate evaluation method (Table 9). Both S1 and S2 essentially attribute the future energy supply with solar cells, wind power and hydropower – whereas solar cells were mentioned most often.

In the written responses, solar power was often set equal to green power. The keywords renewable energies, solar cells, hydropower and wind power were labelled as eco-friendly. Unfortunately fuel cells weren’t designated as possibility for future energy supply by the pupils, although fuel cells are taught in both age groups´ chemistry lessons in Germany.

Additionally, the S3 cohort was requested to mark, which energy converters they consider would be of growing importance in the future energy supply (Table 10).

Providing energy by solar cells was the most mentioned scenario of future energy supply in all cohorts.

Finally, it remains unclear whether the decisions were made on the basis of a deeper scientific concept or the presence of individual energy converters in the media – especially since light energy was mentioned quite rarely as a form of energy in the previous question (Figure 3).

3.3. Additional Teachers’ Impressions
3.3.1. The Energy Term in Everyday Contexts

Eight of the thirteen teachers described the everyday contexts in which they are confronted with the term “energy” (Table 2, question 9). The answers were given in keywords so that they could easily be merged into the word cloud in Figure 4.

  • Figure 4. Energy term in everyday contexts

    The term was most prominent in the area of nutrition and sports, followed by energy supply. According to the teachers, the scientific understanding of the energy term was not present in everyday life. This is in line with data from various literature 1, 5, 9 and once again illustrates the influences on the students’ understanding of the scientific energy concept.

    3.3.2. The Energy Term in School Lessons

    Seven of the thirteen teachers answered the question, in which contexts they talk about energy during their lessons (Table 2, question 10). The answers were also given in keywords, but a subject-specificity of the aspects mentioned became evident. In six out of seven cases, a scientific reference was made, while one answer had a social dimension through the terms “distributive justice” and “responsibility”. Activation energy, aspects of electrochemistry, photosynthesis and metabolism in general were named as points of contact for the energy concept in science teaching in particular. According to the teachers interviewed, in general studies at primary schools the teaching of electricity, nutrition and sport is related to energy. These topics coincide with the everyday contexts in which the term energy is used. It remains unclear how sensitively this young target group is introduced to the scientific concept of energy or whether misconceptions are reinforced in the lessons.

    3.3.3. Familiar Misconceptions

    Six of the teachers stated that and which misconceptions regarding the scientific energy concept they were aware of from the lessons (Table 2, question 11). Three of them named the misconception of creation and destruction of energy. The idea that energy is the same as electricity was also mentioned. The statement that nuclear power is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly electricity was also referred to. Finally, the student conception was listed, that energy would only come out of the socket and would be produced there.

    In addition to the frequently described misconceptions of creation, destruction and materiality of energy, there were prominent references as well as an equation with electricity. These misconceptions should be actively included in the lessons by the teachers in order to enable the students to undergo a conceptual change regarding the scientific energy concept.

    3.3.4. “energy” in Different Subjects: Opportunities and Problems

    Finally, the teachers were asked for their assessment, which opportunities and problems may occur because of using the term “energy” differently in the individual (scientific) subjects (Table 2, question 13). Only three teachers addressed this question. Of these, one contribution describes energy as having no relevance for primary school children. The remaining two answers represent the opportunity of building a crosslinked concept of energy in which natural sciences are seen as a unit. It was seen as a danger that separated structures, might be established. Furthermore, one teacher saw a problem in the fact that confusion or incorrect use of the terms can occur if some colleagues do not pay attention to their precise use.

4. Conclusion and Resulting Impulses

We are well aware of the small numbers of participants in the surveys. This restriction was decided on for organizational reasons. Additionally, the surveys were carried out in the proximity of our university, in order to further involve students, teacher trainees and teachers in cooperation without having them to travel long distances.

Even if the sample was small, impulses can be derived from the surveys: according to the hierarchic learning progression presented in Figure 1 throughout the educational biography increasingly complex fragments of key ideas of the scientific energy concepts are brought together successfully into complete definitions. Younger students often set energy equal with an observable phenomenon or a specific form (idea 1) of energy, whereas older students also took up the aspect of transformation (idea 2) as well as conservation (idea 4). Similar trends were also seen in the results of the closed question (Table 6). Agreement with misconceptions decreased, the selection of scientifically correct statements increased. In fact, however, misconceptions were observable in all age groups on the basis of the written answers. It is not known whether these persist due to influences from everyday life or possibly also due to miscommunication in class. Significantly, statements made by the teachers, who all voluntarily participated in this survey, also showed incorrect concepts of the scientific concept of energy. It can be expected that they also pass these on to their students.

In the course of the educational biography, increasingly diverse and scientifically correct forms of energy are named. Again, however, not all students gave correct answers, but energy converters or energy carriers were also categorised as energy forms in this cohort (Figure 3).

Surprisingly few students in all age groups are familiar with light energy as an energy form from chemistry lessons. Especially since the interviewed learners of all age groups predominantly attribute an enormous importance to solar cells in the future energy supply (Table 8, Table 9, Table 10), this context seems to be a suitable starting point for addressing energy conversions with the inclusion of light energy in schools.

Conscious that newly acquired concepts can be easily affected when lessons are over 1 and even in-service teachers are not infallible at teaching the energy concept (section 3.3.5), it seems appropriate to teach the concept along the educational biography in an progressively complex and constantly repetitive way, explicitly pointing out the differences between the meaning of the word energy in everyday life as well as in the natural sciences. This attachment to the learners´ everyday life and linguistically sensitive handling of the energy concept can possibly give a larger number of pupils the opportunity to change their concept in the long run.

The importance of the increasing use of light energy in the course of the desired energy turnaround seems undisputed. Therefore, the following outlines how light energy and its conversion can be addressed along the educational biography. A brief overview is given in Table 11 that is based on Table 1 and Figure 1.

For example, the curriculum for primary school (P) science lessons in North Rhine-Westphalia provides for dealing with resources and energy in the field of “Technology and the world of work”. Teachers are free to design the content of the focus; only the learning target at the end of primary school is fixed. Learners should collect and document different forms of energy and their convertibility by giving examples 10. The importance of light energy can be illustrated to the pupils using solar cells as an example from technology and photosynthesis as an example from nature. In both cases, light energy is converted into a form of energy that can be either stored, transported or transformed into other forms. Already at this point in the educational biography, it is important to explicitly name the transformation in order to prevent the misconception of destruction. In this way, pupils may reach the basic fact level in the development of the energy concept.

The descriptive level of phenomena is then increasingly replaced by abstract considerations in grades five to ten (S1). In addition to energy transfer, the energy dissipation in chemical reactions is considered. Abstract quantities such as chemical energy are understood with the help of energy diagrams, so that energy becomes quantifiable 11. Even if not explicitly named, solar cells and thus light energy should be addressed in the field of “future-proof power supply”. As is also evident from the survey presented, these energy converters are familiar to the pupils from everyday life. Using the example of solar cells, the meaning of efficiency can be problematised and an energy balance can be considered in a simplified way. This is another possibility to prevent or handle the misconception of energy being destroyed.

Towards the end of the school period in grades eleven to thirteen (S2), the aspects regarding the scientific energy concept are taken up and expanded in terms of complexity. The curriculum contains the energy level model for light absorption. For the first time, there is also an explicit link to solar cells 12. Since chemical energy was quantified in grades five to ten, the energy content of light at different wavelengths can now be discussed. By introducing semiconductors, the working principle of solar cells can be explored in detail. It might be a good idea to make solar cells accessible experimentally, for example via lowcost solar cells based on titanium dioxide 13, 14. In this way, all the components used and the abstract concept “energy” can be experienced in practical application.

What has been pointed out here for light energy and solar cells could also be applied to other forms of energy: Aspects of the energy concept must be taken up repeatedly along the educational biography and interwoven in an increasingly complex way, which is possible as there are matching links to the (chemistry) curriculum.

In order to support teachers in their daily work, other actors in the education system can also create and provide teaching opportunities.

So far, we have developed and carried out several times the learning unit E3Experience Energy Experimentally which addresses secondary school students in grades eleven to thirteen. It focuses on the transformation of different energy forms using school experiments. At the beginning of the unit, the students express their pre-conceptions about different everyday language terms from the context of energy.

In the laboratory, the students carry out one classic and one innovative school experiment on analogue energy conversions at each of three stations (Figure 5) 15. The innovative experiments can be related to the field of sustainable energy supply. In this unit, the transformation of light energy is elucidated at station 1and 3 by the solar cells (based on titanium dioxide) 13, 14 and experiments on (artificial) photosynthesis 16.

  • Figure 5. Overview of the learning unit E3

    During the time spent in the laboratory, the lecturers actively confront the existing concepts before the everyday terms from the field of energy are finally problematised in plenary in comparison with a scientific understanding. For example, the term “energy consumption” is used to refer to the conservation of energy in the scientific understanding. In this way we try to contribute to the conceptual change and growth of the students.

    The effectiveness could not yet be empirically verified due to the pandemic situation. However, the first, immediate impressions of the lecturers were positive.

    In addition to the continuation of the didactic exploration at university, cooperation between university and practitioners from schools should be further developed. It would also be desirable to provide (regular) further training for teachers so that they are continuously coached to teach the scientific concept of energy in a language-sensitive way and with regard to the integration of promising energy converters.

5. Outlook

In order to update the impressions gained, the questionnaires for recording the scientific energy concept are handed out at suitable events so that the sample size is constantly growing. Based on these impressions – the (pre)-concepts – experimental learning units are created for different target groups. For example, the programme E3Experience energy experimentally was updated and promptly offered in a semi-digital version, where students were sent materials to experiment with in advance and conduct them simultaneously in a video conference together with lecturers.


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Published with license by Science and Education Publishing, Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Grandrath, Matthias Teeuwen and Claudia Bohrmann-Linde

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Cite this article:

Normal Style

Rebecca Grandrath, Matthias Teeuwen, Claudia Bohrmann-Linde. Surveys on the Energy Concept – implications on Curricular Adaptions in Teaching (Light) Energy in the Science Classroom. World Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 9, No. 4, 2021, pp 121-129.

MLA Style

Grandrath, Rebecca, Matthias Teeuwen, and Claudia Bohrmann-Linde. “Surveys on the Energy Concept – implications on Curricular Adaptions in Teaching (Light) Energy in the Science Classroom.” World Journal of Chemical Education 9.4 (2021): 121-129.

APA Style

Grandrath, R. , Teeuwen, M. , & Bohrmann-Linde, C. (2021). Surveys on the Energy Concept – implications on Curricular Adaptions in Teaching (Light) Energy in the Science Classroom. World Journal of Chemical Education, 9(4), 121-129.

Chicago Style

Grandrath, Rebecca, Matthias Teeuwen, and Claudia Bohrmann-Linde. “Surveys on the Energy Concept – implications on Curricular Adaptions in Teaching (Light) Energy in the Science Classroom.” World Journal of Chemical Education 9, no. 4 (2021): 121-129.

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