Fuel omissions

28th November 1997 at 00:00
The future of the planet could hinge on humankind's understanding of energy issues. So why is this vital subject ignored at primary level, asks Colin Kruger.

Five years after the Rio Earth Summit and two years before the millennium, the continuing omission of ideas about energy from primary science is puzzling.

The 1992 Rio declaration sought to improve scientific understanding, give people information about the environment, and encourage states to make information available to the public.

A comprehensive blueprint for sustainable global development was produced, which the summit agreed should be implemented at local level through people working co-operatively. High-quality, life-long education was recognised as an essential prerequisite for the success of the programme, so why is a fundamental idea such as energy omitted from the primary science national curriculum? Energy was in the 1991 primary science curriculum but is not in the revised 1995 curriculum at either key stage 1 or 2.

The issue of teaching energy to primary school children poses several questions: * Do primary teachers have the requisite understanding of scientific ideas about energy to be able to teach the topic?

* If they do not, can they acquire sufficient understanding from training programmes?

* If not, what else do teachers need?

* If teachers have all the necessary qualities, can children of primary school age develop understanding of ideas about energy?

The Oxford University Primary School Teachers and Science (PSTS) Project has been studying these questions since 1988. The project team assessed the understanding gained by 53 teachers after using its training materials over two years; it showed that primary teachers had gained an understanding of general ideas about energy. This year the PSTS Project has gone on to explore teachers' under-standing of energy efficiency.

When asked - before training - about the role of energy in everyday domestic situations, teachers used the term "efficient" in two ways: firstly to mean more convenient or faster, and secondly to indicate a reduction in excessive use of energy. This latter usage describes a form of human behaviour, often referred to as "conserving energy", and is quite different from the scientific use of the term "efficiency".

For the scientist, high efficiency means that most of the energy transferred by a device or system goes where it is intended; low efficiency means energy being unintentionally trans-ferred elsewhere, resulting in unwanted heating, sound or movement. For example, in a coal-fired power station less than 40 per cent of the energy potentially available in the coal reaches households in the form of electricity, most of the rest being unintentionally transferred to heat up the surroundings of the power station. (In training, teachers were so impressed by this that they drew the conclusion that all electrical devices were fundamentally inefficient.) Few teachers used the term "efficient" in this scientific way initially, but after training all recognised there was an important scientific meaning as well as the everyday meaning.

Understanding the difference between not wasting energy (conserving energy) and energy efficiency is important for the future of our civilisation.

The project is now looking at teachers' understanding of key ideas and terms relating to energy in the environment such as "sustainable" and "renewable". The research will go on to examine what constitutes effective knowledge for teaching these ideas and efficiency, and looking at the effect this has on children's understanding.

Another area identified by the PSTS Project as causing problems for teachers was forces, particularly ideas about the effect of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of objects. A student teacher, struggling to understand the ideas first conceived by Isaac Newton, was heard to remark, "If we find this so difficult, what about the kids?" Another teacher exclaimed, "Forces? We all teach it on our staff, but none of us understands it!" If such attitudes are typical, there is a case for replacing at this stage this conceptually difficult, and possibly less relevant, material with simple ideas about energy. As adults, the present generation of primary school children will have to deal with the results of many of the energy problems that are now developing. The sooner they understand ideas such as, "energy comes from various sources, some limited, and it is important not to waste it", the better.

Some primary school teachers may resent further changes to the curriculum; they have had to put up with plenty of change in recent years. However, there are good arguments for the curriculum to be improved, particularly if it can be shown changes are feasible in terms of what children can learn and are within the capabilities of teachers. Given the paramount importance of energy issues, it is inconceivable that ideas about energy concerning efficiency and the environment should not be part of the statutory education of every primary school child. It could be that many primary teachers now struggling withdifficult aspects of forces would prefer to be teaching more relevant and interesting ideas about energy, and would say, if asked, "Energy? Can we have it back please?" Colin Kruger is a research officer for the Oxford University Primary School Teachers and Science Project.

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