Tag Archives: energy

Quantifying Border Crossing

In a previous post, I wrote about our failure to provide a culturally relevant and responsive education for all students. One component of that failure — the one closest to my heart and practice — is the conflict between “science culture” and students’ own cultures. The theory of border crossing provides a context for understanding the cultural mechanism at work here, and thus suggests a way forward for science teachers.

Border crossing was usefully applied to science education by Costa [paywalled]. Aikenhead gives a very good (albeit long-ish) overview, including contextualizing border crossing as a cultural theory of science. A subsequent paper by Aikenhead summarizes the idea quite well.


Border crossing suggests that students cross a virtual border between their home culture and the culture of school-science when they enter the science classroom. Students can respond to this crossing in several particular ways:

  1. Potential Scientists cross the border easily because their home culture is aligned with school-science culture. For example, they might have learned the Newtonian view of nature implicitly from their parents.
  2. Other Smart Kids can manage the border crossing because they are attuned to school culture even though the science culture is foreign to them. They tend to achieve high grades because they work hard, but are unlikely to grasp new scientific concepts intuitively. They tend to be able to apply science concepts in scientific contexts, but consider them applicable only in particular domains (such as the classroom, or science tests).
  3. Outsiders are students who struggle with the border crossing. They tend to do poorly at school overall because school culture is incompatible with their personal culture.
  4. Outside-Insiders tend to understand science ideas fairly readily, but often have difficulty in science class because of the baggage associated with the school environment. For example, they might have problems in their dealings with authority.
  5. I Don’t Know students have essentially “checked-out” from the learning process, because of the huge gap between their home culture and school culture.
  6. Aikenhead has also identified a group of students he terms the I Want to Know students. These students tend to be interested in science, but may have some difficulty with learning in the science classroom.

I think of I Want to Know as a moderate form of the Outside-Insiders, and the I Don’t Know students as extreme forms of the Outsiders. Thus, I will exclude the former of these from the subsequent analysis for now.

Although I know about these groupings, and can use them to help me target my instruction, it is usually difficult to categorize students, especially when our conversations take place through the medium of the very science culture I’m trying to abstract. To help with this process, I have been working on a paired-test assessment that identifies students’ approaches to border-crossing.

The assessment instrument consists of two tests (I will share these in a future post). The first is a standard-looking multiple-choice test that is administered in the classroom. The second can be taken online with a computer or a smartphone (via the browser), and is visually similar (and written somewhat akin) to the popular BuzzFeed quizzes. The idea is that the first test will represent a student’s cultural leanings in the classroom, and the second test will represent home cultural beliefs.

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The tests are related to the energy concept, which I chose because of its ubiquity as a core idea in science and because of its presence as a concept in non-scientific worldviews.

Each quiz has four answers, which correspond roughly to four different energy concepts:

  • the scientific, mechanistic view of energy
  • energy as a force of life (vis-viva)
  • energy as a property of moving and changing things (flux)
  • energy as a measure of harmony or balance (qi)

By looking at answers to the paired questions, we can identify students as belonging to one of the four border-crossing groups under consideration. The graph below shows the four answers on the horizontal and vertical axes for the first paired question. Circle areas are proportional to the number of students who chose each pair of answers.

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My next step will be to determine whether each student is consistently falling into one of these four groups over all eight questions. There’s more to come, stay tuned and let me know what you think!

Is Energy Magic?

My modelling grade 11 students know that energy is a number with many formulas, but my grade 6 students have a lot of different ideas about the meaning of energy.


Many have identified different kinds of energy, which is a good approach but doesn’t really answer the question.


Others are clearly half-remembering a good-intentioned elementary school class in which they learned (although I suspect ‘were told’ would be accurate) that living things need energy. Perhaps I could ellicit a description of photodynthesis or a food web from these students.


Beyind the curriculum, I have been attracted to energy because of the way it has been adopted by youth culture. One student defined energy as “whatever is in” a can of Monster energy drink. I am in need of an area of focus for a culture+physics project I am doing, and energy seems appropriate.


Whose model?

I think my favourite part of the modeling approach is that students discover, and thus gain ownership of, the core ideas of physics. When they extract a formula from an experiment they conducted themselves, it is more real to them.


For the energy model, I made a point of emphasizing student ownership of the model. I rarely orate, but recall saying, “This is not Newton’s kinetic energy equation. It doesn’t belong to dead white men. This is YOUR formula for kinetic energy.”


As an entrance activity, I asked students to write down THEIR equations for three types of energy, and THE equations for three types of force. The performance difference on this proximate test of model understanding isn’t because of phrasing. Rather, it comes from how we learned: forces were wrapped up in Newton’s laws, while energies were MINE.


I think this is a good way to approach the cultural dimension of physics education. It encourages students to build understandings that reconcile their home and school worldviews, while allowing the empiricism of Western science a chance to perform and earn respect at a personal level. Whose equations are these?



In a class of 14, the students got 36 out of a possible 42 for “their” equations about energy, and only 21 out of 42 for “the” equations about force. After some silly statistics, that gives me p=0.33 on the null hypothesis that this test distinguishes something other than how recently they learned the idea. So, let’s call it an interesting subgroup analysis.

What IS Energy?

We have been developing the energy model over the past week. Today, the best thing ever happened: I heard “what is energy?” from three different people, and heard three different answers. To a colleague, energy is the ability to do work. To a middle school student, energy is a property of things that allows them to change how they are. To a high school student, energy is a quantity represented by the area on a force-distance graph that may change between gravitational, kinetic, spring, thermal, and other forms.


In fact, the success of this energy model makes me want to take a detour into our thermal physics unit. However, in order to spread out the workload for the Higher Level students, I think we will look next at projectile and circular motion.


Today’s whiteboards come from the inductions of the kinetic and gravitational energy forms.