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The Chemical Educator

ISSN: 1430-4171 (electronic version)

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Abstract Volume 13 Issue 2 (2008) pp 46-53

Student Contextual Understanding of the Terms Dense and Energy: A Qualitative Study

Paul G. Jasien* and Graham E. Oberem

Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Department of Physics,, California State University, San Marcos, San Marcos, CA 92096-0001,
Received July 5, 2007. Accepted October 8, 2007.

Published online: 24 March 2008

Abstract. A qualitative study to elicit studentsí abilities to contextualize word meaning was carried out on a population of beginning- and advanced-level chemistry students. Structured interviews were done based on a series of statements with the terms dense and energy used in both a scientific and an everyday context. The results indicate that few students were able to satisfactorily separate the colloquial from the scientific meanings. Upper- or lower-division status does not seem to play a role in the studentís ability to perform this task. In fact, in some instances more advanced study seems to be a hindrance. Some of the inability to contextualize the term dense may be due to difficulty separating macroscopic versus atomic level models. For energy, students tended to see biological and non-biological energy as distinctly different. They also failed to clearly distinguish energy derived from a stimulant from that of chemical potential energy sources. Related to this were a number of interviewee hypotheses that there exists a different form of energy not derived from the caloric content. It is proposed that specific instructor interventions should be executed to forestall potential roadblocks to understanding due to the inability to contextualize.

Key Words: In the Classroom; chemical education; language; scientific terminology; qualitative methods; case studies, misconceptions

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Issue date: April 1, 2008

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