Ozone Hole Leaks and Other Tales

[4] Toilets flush in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. This one is kind of a pedagogically useful misconception because although it is absolutely wrong, the idea behind it is correct and it is primarily a matter of scale. Having said that, I find the Coriolis effect to be one of the most challenging topics for students to grasp as soon as we move beyond its initial descriptive definition. There is often lots of confusion between “to the right” and “to the east” in the northern hemisphere. Plus when we add another dimension to the mix (vertical) in discussing tropical hurricanes, this becomes a serious barrier to understanding. So, I try to avoid any directional terms, like east or west as well as clockwise or counter-clockwise. Not because students are too young to know a non-digital traditional clock, but because from satellite images hurricanes look like they are rotating counter-clockwise. Really can’t argue with what the students are seeing for themselves. But if we keep the terms simple, “moving objects in the northern hemisphere are deflected to the right within the frame of reference of the moving object,” it becomes a little easier to understand, though still challenging. Another challenge here is that the Coriolis effect comes across as a force and it is difficult for students who have not had physics to distinguish between a force and a deflection (an effect).

Perhaps you are now thinking “this may be true in some university in west Michigan but surely in other, more prestigious universities the students know better!” If only this were true. A Private Universe is a video documenting lingering misconceptions among Harvard graduates about the causes behind seasons and lunar phases. The problem is misconceptions are hard to detect because most students are adept at answering questions with exactly what the teacher wants to hear and with correct terminology but without any real understanding of the science. After nine years of collegiate teaching I now know to encourage a casual “say whatever is on your mind” attitude with students. This way, I am hoping to get them to inadvertently voice their misconceptions so I can address them.

And one may be tempted to think this is solely an American problem because the American system of education has been exposed to some serious criticism of late. Again, not so! It’s a global problem. Here are some examples from a couple of quick Google searches. Greek kindergarten teachers harbor deeply rooted confusion about the “ozone hole” and the “greenhouse effect;” while Greek primary school teachers think the ozone hole causes climate change. Australian university students believe a large portion of the ozone hole is over Australia and that the high rate of skin cancer is largely caused by this hole. Junior high school students in Israel seem to understand various processes within the hydrologic cycle, but believe its beginning point is the ocean and the end point is groundwater. And some Turkish in-service physics teachers believe that the moon does not rise and set while Turkish pre-service science teachers think summer is warmer than winter because the Earth is closer to the sun in the summer time.

How about you? Take this quiz to see where you stand ;) Update: Apparently the quiz has been taken off line…

I think, however, there may be some room for improvement in the wording and explanations in this quiz because some questions are very obscure, ambiguous and Chicago-centric. I would like to know what commenters think about it.

Where do misconceptions come from? Personal experiences and intuitive understanding play a large part in fostering misconceptions, and most false notions are reinforced through school and the media. I would like to share with you this delightful and brief story of how personal experiences color the judgment of a bunch of 4th graders about the nature of heat. They have a wise science teacher who broaches the topic with a question: “can you give me an example of something that is hot?” She is expecting answers like the Sun, or a stove or maybe even Britney Spears. But the students say sweaters, hats, and coats. One says “rugs are wicked hot.” The teacher says “when I touch your sweater it doesn’t feel hot.” The students say “Ooh, it’s a matter of time. With time it can be 200 degrees!” Hmmm.. Can you blame them? They spent at least nine years in cold Massachusetts winters and their parents and teachers always told them to put on their warm clothes.

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