Children's misconceptions about weather: A review of the literature

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, LA, April 29, 2000.

Laura Henriques
California State University, Long Beach
Science Education Department
1250 Bellflower Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90840

Acknowledgements
The author would like to express appreciation to Dr. Eric J. Fetzer at the Jet Propulsion Lab for his review of the misconceptions. Not all stated misconceptions were actually incorrect. Dr. Fetzer is a member of the  Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) scientific team.

The literature review for this study was conducted for Project ALERT, a NASA/California State University project.
 

Abstract

It is generally accepted that children have their own understanding of how the world works prior to receiving formal science instruction. Much research has been done to determine students' misconceptions related to the physical sciences; less has been done to understand children's ideas in the earth sciences. This paper reports a synthesis of the existing research about children's misconceptions relating to weather, climate and the atmosphere. The scientifically accepted interpretations are presented in tandem with the children's naïve ideas. When possible, the source of the misconception is also presented. In many cases, students' misconceptions are not addressed in the curriculum, allowing them to exist unchallenged.

 
Background

The science education community generally accepts the idea that students enter the classroom with their own understandings of the world. These understandings are often at odds with the scientifically accepted view of the world. Research into the children's naïve interpretations of the world shed insight and provide guidance for prospective and practicing teachers. When teachers know what their students think they can implement instructional activities to challenge existing student ideas. Activities and questions can be planned in advance so teachers target their students’ misconceptions.

Many studies have been done to investigate children's ideas about physical phenomena (e.g. Driver, Guesne & Tiberghien, 1985; Stepans, 1994). Fewer studies have been done to understand what children think about earth science topics. Several groups and agencies are working to increase earth science literacy (e.g. NASA, ESSE/USRA, GSA). These groups hope to improve Earth science teaching and learning but they are hindered by the lack of educational research in their field. This study grew out of the need for a comprehensive review of misconceptions related to a single topic in earth science, weather.

Project ALERT is a NASA/California State University consortium that strives to improve Earth science education for prospective teachers and their K-12 students. This study is the result of a partnership between CSU and Jet Propulsion Laboratory faculty. JPL is launching a new mission (AIRS) which will take measurements which will drastically improve our weather forecasting capabilities. As part of the educational outreach associated with that mission, the scientists wanted to know what students should know about weather (a review of standards) as well as what they already know that's incorrect (misconceptions). This paper is a literature review and standards review for the topics associated with weather. Student ideas along with scientifically accepted ideas are presented in tandem. Possible sources of the misconceptions are stated when possible.

 
Methodology

A review of articles related to various topics associated with weather took place. A comprehensive list of student ideas was collected. Studies were done with children of varying ages which allowed for comparisons of misconceptions as a function of age. The misconceptions were then grouped by weather related topic. A listing of scientifically accepted ideas was compiled in tandem the misconceptions, allowing for easy comparison of students’ ideas and scientists’ understandings.

The lists were externally reviewed by an expert. The scientists conducting the review is eminently qualified to do so. He has a doctorate in meteorology, a bachelor’s in physics and has worked at NASA for many years on weather related missions. The expert found that some of the ideas that were listed as misconceptions were not really wrong. In fact, some were actually fairly good representations of the scientific ideas.

The various standards were then reviewed in order to see how student ideas related to what they were studying in school. The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993), California Science Standards (California Board of Education, 1999) and the National Geography Standards (National Geographic Society, 1994) were examined for standards related to weather. In addition to scientific content, students are expected to understand how to use scientific tools to gather data about weather; they should be able to conduct investigations; they should be able to read and use maps, graphs and tables; and they should have scientific values. The standards relating to weather were aligned with the student misconceptions.
 
 

Findings

The vast majority of the misconceptions fall under the heading of physical science, not Earth science. Even though the topic under review was weather, an Earth science topic, most of the associated research relates to physical properties. The misconceptions fit into the following areas: properties of water, phase changes and the water cycle, cloud formation and precipitation, the atmosphere (gases), and greenhouse effect/global warming. With the exception of cloud formation/precipitation and the greenhouse effect/global warming the topics are not strictly Earth science. Geology is an interdisciplinary subject so it is easy to use misconceptions gathered for other purposes and relate them to Earth science topics. It does suggest, however, that there are many studies that have yet to be done relating to children’s ideas about Earth science.

Tables 1-6 list the scientific ideas and the corresponding misconceptions for the water cycle, phase changes of water, clouds and precipitation, atmosphere and gases, seasons and the heating of Earth, and the greenhouse effect/global warming. Possible sources for the misconceptions are listed.

 

Table 1. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about the Water Cycle

Younger students tend to view the water cycle by focussing on the properties of water. They see the water cycle primarily in terms of freezing and melting.
 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
When matter is heated it expands because the molecules are vibrating more quickly, loosening bonds, and increasing the space between adjacent atoms or molecules. Expansion of matter is due to the expansion of the particles, rather than the increase of particle spacing (Sere, 1985; Stepans, 1994). 

Water atoms themselves expand or change when ice melts (Lee, Eichinger, Anderson, Berkheimer & Blakeslee 1993; Stepans, 1994). 

Possible source of misconception: language used by textbooks and teachers often confuse students. Many students often attribute macroscopic properties to the microscopic level.

The water cycle involves liquid water being evaporated, water vapor condensing to form rain or snow in the clouds which falls to the earth. The water cycle involves freezing and melting of water (Brody, 1993). 

Possible source of misconception: students understand the concept of boiling and freezing well before understanding evaporation and condensation.

Water can evaporate from plants, animals, puddles and the ground in addition to bodies of water. Water only gets evaporated from the ocean or lakes. 

Possible source of misconception: diagrams of the water cycle in textbooks tend to have the evaporation arrow coming from a large body of water.

 

Table 2. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about Phase Changes of Water

Students tend to develop their own models to explain phase changes. Models become increasingly sophisticated with age. Students use their current model to explain all their observations to do with phase change. For example, a student who thinks that bubbles rising from boiling water consist of oxygen and hydrogen is likely to use oxygen and hydrogen recombining to form condensation. On further probing about any phase change phenomena that student will revert back to ideas of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

When explaining states of matter younger children will give examples or functions of the matter. These younger children think of matter as concrete and solid. As they get older they will explain matter via structure and property. It isn’t until ~7th grade that students will describe matter in terms of weight and/or volume.
 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
Bubbles that form and rise when water is boiling consist of steam (or water vapor). When water boils and bubbles come up the bubbles are air (Bar & Travis, 1991; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

The bubbles are oxygen or hydrogen (Bar & Travis, 1991; Brody, 1993; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

The bubbles coming up from boiling water are heat (Bar & Travis, 1991; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). (younger children) 

Possible source of misconception: older children who know water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen (which are gases) reason that gases released from water must be H or O; since they cannot see anything inside the bubbles, and the bubbles disappear when they reach the air they are probably air to begin with.

The gas escaping from boiling water is water vapor. When this vapor condenses in the air it is visible as tiny water droplets. The white substance coming from boiling water is smoke (Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). (younger students) 

When the steam is no longer visible it becomes air (Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Steam is hot air (Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Hydrogen and oxygen which separated during boiling recombine to form water in the air (Ewings & Mills, 1994; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Possible source of misconception: students tend to give answers consistent with their ideas about the bubbles. For example, air bubbles in the water become air when in the ambient air.

Water left in an open container evaporates, changing from liquid to gas. Water in an open container is absorbed by the container (Bar, 1989; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Water in an open container disappears (Bar, 1989; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Water in the open container changes into air or disappears and turns into air (Bar, 1989; Brody, 1993; Lee, et.al., 1993; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

The water dries up - it is not steam, it just dries up and goes into the air (Bar, 1989). 

All the misconceptions here (except water being absorbed by the container) are basically true since water vapor is a legitimate component of air. Most students, however, were not viewing the evaporated water as a component of air because air to them is nothingness.

Ice molecules vibrate less than water molecules. Since they have less kinetic energy their temperature is lower. Ice molecules are colder than water molecules (Lee, et.al., 1993). 

this is an example of applying macroscopic properties to the microscopic level

Condensation is water vapor in the air which cools sufficiently to become a liquid. This usually happens when the water vapor comes in contact with a (cool) surface. Condensation on the outside of a container is water that seeped through the container itself (or sweated through the walls of the container) (Ewings & Mills, 1994; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

The coldness comes through the container and produces water (Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Condensation is when air turns into a liquid (Lee, et.al., 1993; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983). 

Possible source of misconception: language used is confusing — we talk about glasses "sweating" and humans sweat liquids from the inside. It is difficult for students to think about invisible water in the air which condenses onto a surface.

 

Table 3. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about Clouds and Precipitation

 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
Cloud formation is dependent upon the amount of water evaporating and condensing. Water molecules are continually changing state between solid, liquid and gas. When more molecules evaporate into the atmosphere than condense on earth, clouds can form. The reason clouds form is because cold air doesn’t hold as much water as warm air (Fraser, 2000). 

Possible source of misconception: lots of books (and therefore lots of teachers) say this! This  is actually a more useful explanation as it has in it the concept of air parcels and their conservation of mass.

Raindrops’ shape is based on their size. Small raindrops are spherical, medium sized raindrops are a bit flattened but still basically spherical, and larger raindrops get distorted until they break into smaller drops. 

The shape is dependent upon the surface tension of water and the air pressure pushing up on the drop as it falls.

Raindrops look like tear drops (Fraser, 2000). 

Possible source of misconception: artistic representations tend to have raindrops as tear drops (weather maps, book illustrations)

Clouds are created when water vapor condenses onto dust or other particles in the air. The water vapor is in the atmosphere as a result of evaporation of water from the surface of the earth, and from respiration of plants and animals. 

Airborne particles affect cloud formation.

Clouds go to the sea and get filled with water. NOTE: that students with this idea view the water cycle only in terms of liquid water - there is no phase change required for this model. The next stage is for students to view the water cycle in terms of water boiling - for students in this stage the only way water becomes a gas is through boiling (i.e., no evaporation).
Rain begins to fall when water drops in the cloud are too heavy to remain airborne. Rain falls out of the sky when the clouds evaporate (Stepans & Keuhn, 1985). 

Rain comes from holes in clouds (like salt from a salt shaker) (Philips, 1991). 

Rain comes from clouds sweating (Philips, 1991; Stepans & Keuhn, 1985). 

Rain comes from clouds melting (Dove, 1998). 

Rain falls from funnels in the clouds (Philips, 1991).

Rain occurs whether or not we want/need it to. When the water droplets are sufficiently heavy they fall from the clouds. Rain occurs because we need it (Philips, 1991). 

Rain occurs when clouds get scrambled and melt (Bar, 1989; Philips, 1991). 

Rain occurs when clouds are shaken (by the wind) (Bar, 1989; Philips, 1991). 

Rain occurs when clouds collide (Bar, 1989). 

Rain occurs when clouds become too heavy (Bar, 1989; Stepans & Keuhn, 1985).

A visible cloud is primarily tiny water droplets and/or tiny ice crystals; it is not water vapor. Clouds (and rain) are made by God (Piaget as cited in Bar, 1989 & Dove, 1998). 

Clouds come from somewhere above the sky. 

Empty clouds are refilled by the sea (water stays as a liquid through the entire process) (Bar, 1989; Philips, 1991). 

Clouds are formed by boiling - vapors from kettles or the sun boiling the sea (Philips, 1991). 

Clouds are made of cold, heat, fog, snow or night. 

Clouds are mostly smoke, made of cotton or wool, or they are bags of water (Philips, 1991). 

Clouds are sponges that hold water. 

Clouds are water vapor. 

Clouds are dust particles. 

Possible source of misconception: cloud formation is often demonstrated with a tea kettle; evaporation is a liquid turning to a gas — just like boiling; when clouds and water vapor demonstrations are done in school students see the condensed water as a cloud but think they are seeing water vapor (which is actually invisible); clouds of cotton or other substances might result from our descriptions of clouds or art projects.

Clouds move when wind blows them. Clouds move when we move. We walk and the clouds move with us (Stepans & Kuehn, 1985).
Clouds are necessary but not sufficient predictors of rain. The presence of clouds does not mean it will rain. Clouds and rain are independent (Bar, 1989). 

Clouds foretell rain (Bar, 1989).

Lightning tends to stirke the highest points in a given area, as a result, such locations are likely to be struck repeatedly. Lightning never strikes the same place twice (Nelson, Aron & Francek, 1992).
Thunder and lightning are the visible and auditory effects of a massive charge transfer between clouds. God and angels cause thunder and lightning (Stepans & Keuhn, 1985). 

Thunder occurs when two clouds collide (Russell et al 1993 as cited in Dove, 1998). 

Possible source of misconception: children are often told stories like this so that they are not frightened during storms.

Frost forms when wator vapor comes in contact with very cold surfaces. The water freezes directly insteading of condensing to a liquid in a process called deposition (gas becomes a solid without becoming a liquid first). Frost falls from the sky. 

Frost is frozen dew.

Flooding is a phenomena that occurs when there is more water than the ground or rivers can accomodate. Flooding only occurs along rivers when the snow melts in the spring (Schoon, 1989). 
Flooding only occurs after a heavy rainfall (Schoon, 1989).
 
Table 4. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about the Atmosphere & Gases

These concepts are difficult for many learners because they deal with matter which is often invisible. Discussions about gases and the atmosphere tend to be abstract rather than concrete, which increases the probabiity of misconceptions.
 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
Green plants produce oxygen as a product of photosynthesis. During photosynthesis plants combine water and carbon dioxide to produce simple sugar and oxygen. Sunlight and chlorophyll are required for photosynthesis to occur. The oxygen we breath does not come from plants (Philips, 1991).
Gas has mass. How much something weighs depends upon how much is present. Density of the material also matters. Having gas inside something does not make it lighter - although it can change the density. Gas makes things lighter (Philips, 1991; Sere, 1985). 

Possible source of misconception: gases that people have experience with (balloons - air or helium) tend to be light. Many things that float have gas or air trapped in them (a large ship) - rather than focusing on the density of the object (which changes when the volume changes) people often focus on the gas or air trapped inside.

Humid air is less dense than dry air. It has more water vapor in it but that makes the air less dense - water’s molecular weight is 18, dry air’s is 29. Humid air is oppressive and heavy; humid air is more dense than dry air (Aron, Francek, Nelson & Bisard, 1994). 

Humidity is moisture in the air (Armstrong, 1995). 

Possible source of misconception hot, humid days feel heavier and more oppressive. Personal observations are difficult for students to ignore.

Heated air has the same mass as cold air. Other properties of the gas will change as heat is added (either increased pressure or volume) but the mass remains constant. Heated air weighs more than cold air. 

Hot air weighs less than cold air. 

Possible source of misconception we often say "hot air rises" which might imply that it weighs less. Statements are true if the sample is not kept at fixed volume and it's weighed in air.

Air is composed of several gases. The predominant gases include: oxygen, nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide. 

Air is a mixture of gases.

Air is not the same everywhere. Air in a container is different than air in the room or outside. 

Air and oxygen are the same thing (Stepans, 1994).

Air exerts pressure (air pressure) in all directions. The greater the altitude the lower the air pressure. Air only exerts force or pressure when it is moving (Sere, 1985). 

Gases flow like liquids. This means that they can be unevenly distributed in a container (Lee, et.al, 1993). 

Gases only exert a force only if they undergo a force, a pull or if they are heated (Sere, 1985). 

Gases are able to exert pressure because of the weight of the air above it - because of this air pressure only acts down (this is partially true) (Nelson, Aron & Francek, 1992). 

Gases only exert force in one direction (usually down) (Smith & Ford, 1996). 

Pressure is not the same in all directions (Brody, 1993).

Surface winds do flow from high to low pressure but only at the surface. At high altitude winds and vertical air flows (air currents) violate this idea. In those situations ration effects exert a force balancing pressure differential. Air in motion always obeys the pressure gradient force and flows in a direction from high to low pressure (Nelson, Aron & Francek, 1992).
Gases, like other matter, have mass and take up space. The amount of gas in a closed container is constant but the volume can change as pressure changes. Gases are not matter because they are invisible (Stepans, 1994). 

Gas has no weight — even if it has color it has no weight (Stavy, 1990). 

Gases weigh less than the materials that created them (Mas, Perez & Harris, 1987; Stavy, 1990). 

Air neither has mass nor can it occupy space (Stepans, 1994). (younger students) 

When gases expand more gas is present (Sere, 1985)

Vacuums are areas of low (or zero) pressure. Areas of high pressure will push against the walls of a vacuum to equalize the pressure. Vacuums "suck" or pull things into them (Nussbaum, 1985; Sere, 1985). 

An evacuated (crushed) can or deflated bike tire has less pressure inside than out. 

Vaccuums cannot exist as nearby air will rush in to fill it (Nussbaum, 1985). 
Possible source of misconception: nature abhors a vacuum so the space has to fill up. A vacuum cleaner ‘sucks’ things into it

Small size prevents us from seeing them but there are significant numbers of particles present in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is made up solely of air (Smith & Ford, 1996).
Blowing creates areas of faster moving air which has a lower air pressure. High pressure areas will cause motion into the areas of low pressure. Many students believe that blowing on something always makes it move away (Stepans, 1994). 

Some students believe that blowing takes the pressure with it (Stepans, 1994). 

Possible source of misconception: prior experiences make this seem logical (blowing bubbles or dandelions).

Symbols on weather maps are misleading to many people.  The H and L represent areas of high and low pressure. The isobars represent areas of equal pressure.  The H on weather maps stands for hot temperatures whereas L means cold weather (Moyle, 1980 and Russell, Bell, Longden, & McGuigan, 1993 as cited in Dove, 1998). 

Isobars on weather maps represent wind speed or temperature (Moyle, 1980 and Russell et al, 1993 as cited in Dove, 1998).

Gravity is the force of attraction between two or more massive objects. The force of gravity is dependent upon the masses involved and the distance between them. The force of gravity acts at a distance (contact is not required). Gravity increases with height; gravity cannot exist without air; gravity requires a medium to act through (Philips, 1991).

 
Table 5. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about the Season and Heating of the Earth
 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
Seasonal variation is a result of the Earth’s alignment on its axis.  Seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the Sun (Harvard-Smithsonian, 1985; Philips, 1991; Rastovac & Slavsky, 1986; Schoon, 1989, 1995). 

Possible source of misconception when closer to a heat source one notices an increase in temperature - this means Earth must be closer to the Sun when it is hotter.

It is difficult to make accurate, long term weather predictions. Predictions that are made are based on a variety of factors in the atmosphere - not on fur thickness, a ground hog’s shadow or the like. 

There have been some animals (e.g. wooly caterpillar) that seem to vary in number and fur thickness based on severity of upcoming winter. While the patterns have been noticed there is no conclusive evidence to suggest this as a reliable way to predict weather.

Winter weather can be predicted by studying the thickness of the fur on some animals (Philips, 1991; Schoon, 1989, 1995). 

Very cold winters can be predicted by seeing how hot it was last summer (Schoon, 1995). 

Possible source of misconception — folk lore. Some attribute this to Native American folklore.

Winds are produced byt he uneven heating of Earth's surface andthe resulting rise and fall of differentially heated air masses. Clouds block wind and slow it down (Moyle, 1980 as cited in Dove, 1998). 

Cold temperatures produce fast winds (Moyle, 1980 as cited in Dove, 1998).

Infrared light is bright but invisible light. When light of any sort is absorbed by an object the object gets heated. Infrared is "heat radiation", not light (Beatty, 2000). 

Infrared is the only type of light that, when absorbed, causes objects to heat. 

Infrared light is not a kind of heat. (Beatty, 2000)

Heat is a form of energy. This energy (thermal energy) can be transfered from one object to another. When objects absorb thermal energy their temperature increases. Heat acts as a fluid (Erickson & Tiberghein, 1985; Stepans, 1994). 

Heat is a substance which can be added to or removed from an object (Stepans, 1994; Watts, 1983). 

Heat makes things rise (Stepans, 1994). 

Cold is opposite to heat (Stepans, 1994). 

Possible source of misconception: nonscientific use of the terms heat and temperature add confusion to this topic. Kinetic molecular theory is too abstract and has little effect at transforming students' ideas.

Energy is a measure of a system's capacity to do work. Energy has several forms. Energy is a fluid which flows between places and/or objects. It is human dependent (Watts, 1983).
 
Table 6. Scientific Understandings and Misconceptions about Global Warming & the Greenhouse Effect
 
Rather than thinking . . . .
Many students think . . .
Gases in the atmosphere are able to absorb and reflect radiated heat from earth back to the Earth’s surface. Some of the heat they absorb does get radiated to space but some gets radiated back towards earth. Suppression of convection is the main factor responsible for higher temperatures in green houses and closed cars. 

Some suggest that this phenomena should be called the atmospheric effect instead of the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect is caused when gases in the atmosphere behave as a blanket and trap radiation which is then reradiated to the Earth (Fraser, 2000). 

Absorption by the glass in greenhouses is the main factor responsible for higher temperatures inside (Beatty, 2000). 

The blanket analogyis not a bad one but students need to see where the analogy breaks down.

Global warming is the name given to the phenomena whereby the surface of the earth gets hotter. 

Our planet is warmer with an atmosphere than it would be without. This phenomena has been given the name Greenhouse Effect. The atmosphere is different than a greenhouse in that it radiates energy back to Earth rather than simply trapping energy inside.

Global warming and the greenhouse effect are the same thing (Fraser, 2000; Smith & Ford, 1996). 

Possible source of misconception: the greenhouse effect and global warming are often mentioned together in the press. This causes many to link them and think they are interchangeable.

Without an atmosphere Earth would receive significantly less heat; life as we know it would not exist. The Greenhouse Effect, therefore, is not a bad thing. The greenhouse effect is bad and will eventually cause all living things to die (Hocking, Sneider, Erickson & Golden, 1990).
The temperature of a given day is dependent upon many different things including time of year, location, altitude, prevaiing winds, etc. 
The snow and ice are functions of cold temperatures, not the cause of them.
Cold days are caused by the clouds covering the sun (Russell et al, 1993 as cited in Dove, 1998). 

Snow and ice make it cold (Piaget, 1929).

Ozone can be beneficial or harmful, depending upon where it is located in the atmosphere. Ozone in the upper atmosphere blocks out damaging UV radiation. Ozone in the lower atmosphere (near earth’s surface) is a major constituent of smog. Ozone, no matter its location, is bad. 

Ozone, no matter its location, is good

The ‘ozone hole’ is an area of the atmosphere where the ozone levels are lower than expected. The ozone hole is a hole in the sky.
 

There were recurring themes regarding student understanding of the topics at hand. Studies suggest that students’ ability to understand that matter can be invisible yet still exist corresponds to Piaget’s assertions regarding object permanence (Stavy, 1990). Another commonality between Piaget’s work and misconception findings was seen in Sere’s (1985) study where students described their understanding of gases. They tended to focus on a single attribute of the gas. The evolution of their beliefs tends to mirror those that have occurred throughout history (Mas, Perez & Harris, 1987). As their ability to conserve mass and substance are developed they are better equipped to deal with the phase changes, and the water cycle.

Bar (1989) refers back to Piaget’s 1929 studies of children’s ideas about clouds and rain. She cites his categories for children’s ideas as falling into the following categories. For the source of clouds and rain kids first think that God or people made them. Later the think that the clouds are mostly smoke. They have an analogy associated with this belief which takes into account the water. Eventually they believe that clouds are made of water or air and heat that turns into water. Piaget’s work also shows that students felt that clouds and rain are independent. Bar’s findings are consistent. She grouped children by age and their beliefs about evaporation with their ability to conserve.

Table 7. Bar's (1989) Categories for Children's Beliefs about Water Evaporation
Age of Child
Ability to Conserve
Ideas about Evaporation
5-7 water and air not conserved when water dries (evaporates) it disappears
6-8 water conserved, air not conserved when drying  (evaporating) water penetrates solid objects. 
Clouds can open and close to gather/store/release water.
6-9 water conserved, air not conserved phase changes only happen when something boils 
7-10 water and air conserved water evaporates into a container
9-10 water and air conserved water changes to vapor
11-15 water and air conserved weight is attributed to air and water vapor and small drops of water
 

As children age they are able to conceive of gases as matter. Initially, children think that only solids are matter. As they age, their understanding of matter becomes more sophisticated. In early stages, they view liquids and gases as matter but hold some properties to be essential, or core elements of matter, and other features to be additions or enhancements (features such as color or smell) (Stavy, 1990). These students would say that a smell exists without matter being present. Young children tend to explain matter by example first and then by function. Later they are able to explain its structure and properties (Stavy, 1991) but they don’t always have a full understanding of properties. For example, students would say that light or heat are matter because they seem to be tangible but gases are non-matter because they are invisible (Lee et al, 1993).

As students try to understand matter and how matter changes phase they must have some understanding of atoms and molecules. Student understanding of matter includes microscopic and macroscopic understandings (Driver, 1985; Lee et al, 1993). Naïvely, they assume that properties at the macroscopic level hold at the microscopic level. They think the atoms have the same properties as the substance (Ben-Zvi, Eylon, & Silberstein, 1986; Novick & Nussbaum, 1981).

Children’s understanding of the water cycle through time shows predictable patterns. Early on, children focus on the liquid aspect of the water cycle. Water (liquid) goes from the sea into the clouds, liquid water is stored in the clouds and falls back to Earth. They see phase changes in the water cycle as being a series of freezing and boiling episodes without evaporation or condensation (Brody, 1993). In order for them to fully understand the water cycle and a mechanism for rain, students need to understand evaporation and condensation (Bar, 1989; Bar & Travis, 1991).

Some of the misconceptions stated in the literature were not deemed misconceptions by the meteorology expert (Fetzer, 1999). Among those that were not considered misconceptions are some ideas which are highly sophisticated and others which could be true on a technical level or are good explanations. For example water left in an open container changes into air (Brody, 1993; Lee et al, 1993; Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983) is technically correct becuase water vapor is a legitimate component of air. However, most students who say water turns into air probably  are not thinking that way. Ice molecules are colder than water  (Lee et al, 1993) and pure water freezes at 32F or 0C are pretty close to the truth, especially as taught in most science classes. Clouds foretell rain is true. They are necessary but insufficient predictors. Sufrace winds flow from high to low pressure (Nelson, Aron & Francek, 1992) is strictly true only right at the surface. Even a few feet up this breaks down. Surface winds do flow from high to low pressure but high altitude winds and vertical air flows (air currents) violate this idea. In those situations rotation effects exert a force balancing the pressure differential. Heated air weighs more than cold air  and hot air weighs less than cold air  are true if the sample is not kept at fixed volume and it's weighed in air. Using the information about air temperature is actually a more useful explanation for cloud formation. In other words, the reason clouds form is because cold air doesn't hold as much water as warm air (Fraser, 2000) is useful because it has in it the concept of air parcels and their conservation of mass. Exchanged with the surface are actually of secondary importance and are much more difficult to understand. What all this means to us is that we must be careful to examine the so-called misconceptions to see if they are indeed untrue. 

Standards and Misconceptions

The review of the standards showed that a majority of weather related information fell under the heading of "geography" as opposed to science. In science, students are expected to understand the water cycle and properties of water. They are also to learn about heat exchanges between Earth and the sun. They use tools to learn about weather and collect weather data. They make graphs, do experiments and come to conclusions but the application of this weather knowledge is under the purview of geography. Students are to distinguish between weather and climate and know, among other things, how climate influences commerce, choice of habitat and trade.

This has some implications for teacher preparation. Elementary teachers are used to integrating content. Most good elementary teachers already combine social studies instruction with science instruction. Middle and high school teachers are less comfortable integrating content areas. Since so much of the content related to weather and climate is geography based instead of science based it behooves us to get social science and natural science teachers communicating. By providing science inservice to social science teachers at the elementary level we may be able to find a wider audience than typically attends science inservice workshops.

 

Usefulness of the Study

Student misconceptions can provide an entrée for instruction. When teachers know what their students are thinking about a topic they can tailor experiments and activities which challenge the students' thinking. Simply challenging an idea does not guarantee that the ideas will change. However, when the opportunity for cognitive conflict is presented and the students will have to do something with the new information. If a teacher does not know what his/her students are thinking about a topic the chance of creating that situation is low. By having the students' misconceptions a priori  improves the probability that they can be addressed.

 Most teachers are far too busy to gather misconception data from their students. If a list of topic related misconceptions were made available to teachers they could review the list prior to instruction so that lessons which challenge students' ideas are included. These lists, like the one in this paper, are useful information for practicing teachers (K-16) as well as preservice teachers. Not only will science teaching faculty find the list of misconceptions useful, methods instructors will, too. Studies (Aron, Francek, Nelson & Bisard, 1994; Schoon, 1995) show that prospective elementary teachers’ misconceptions about earth science concepts are at least as prevalent as middle school students’. This means that methods instructors must continue to challenge the thinking of their education students while the science faculty also help to develop scientifically accurate understandings.

Knowing and using misconceptions is also useful for content providers of teacher inservice, as many of the teachers will hold the same misconceptions as their students (Schoon, 1985). In the inservice setting, teachers are comfortable working with their students' misconceptions as a springboard into science content knowledge (Shymansky & others, 1993). It is much less threatening for teachers to share what their students think or don't know than it is to share what they think or  don't know!
 

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