Basic Laws of Thermodynamics and the Influence of Vitalistic Conception on Learning of the High School Students About Matter Cycle and Energy Flow
This study analysis whether the basic laws of thermodynamics
or vitalistic conception is effective in explanation of the matter cycle
and energy flow in an ecological system by the high school students. The
findings of the study suggest that although the students know the physical
and chemical laws about matter cycle and energy flow as well as the second
law of thermodynamics on theoretical basis, they are faced with some difficulties
arising from the vitalistic conception in applying to the biological facts.
It has been known for a long time that the students experience some difficulties
in understanding that the matter cycle and the energy transfer are done according
to the basic laws of thermodynamics. Morowitz (1992) agreed
that there are some conflicts in applying of the basic laws of thermodynamics
on biological events. Energy and matter cycle are known to be difficult to teach
in science courses and known to be the main reason for several misconceptions
(Barak et al., 1997). The fact that the subject
of energy is taught in different formats and different purposes for living and
non-living things in physics, chemistry and biology courses results in some
problems in applying of energy to such disciplines. This causes some problems
in understanding the energy storing between the bonds of organic molecules which
form the basis of the vitality and their use without loss in living systems
which are accepted as a closed system (Dobzhansky, 1974).
The evolutionary studies suggest that the biological systems differentiated
in non-living molecules such as organic molecules at first to create the primitive
forms and then the developed living forms. However, the fact that the molecules
come together according to certain physical and chemical laws and whether such
organization causing the living variations depending on energy can emerge on
its own or not has long been debated. According to the Law of thermodynamics,
in closed systems such as the living things, the disorder tends to transform
to order. Is it possible that such organization emerges on its own depending
on the biological energy, or is there an external vital force playing role in
organization of such molecules in a living thing which come together with physical
and chemical laws (Wilson, 1992)? At this point, the scientists
as well as the religious circles commonly used the vitalistic conception in
explaining the necessary force to transform an organized matter to a living
things. It was generally accepted that an external factor activated the organic
molecules and created vitality. In the following years, this conception formed
the basis of the opinions that he second law of thermodynamics could not explain
the formation of vitality (Bridgman, 1961; Lehninger,
1971; Harold, 1986). Despite the ongoing debates, it
has been accepted that the molecular structure of the living things as well
as their operation and the emergence of vitality is in accordance with all physical
and chemical laws (Bera, 1982; Jeffey,
1987; Elitzur, 1994). It is known that a vitality
definition which is not secure, mostly based on the traditional doctrine is
developed in individuals starting from the childhood and such definition usually
includes religious and anthromorphic elements. (Tamir and
Zohar, 1991). It is known that the biological education cannot reach to
the desired point due to the reflection of the views about livingness that include
vitalistic elements acquired outside school (family, environment), on the biological
education (either by teacher or student) (Lawson and Worsnop,
1990; Lawson and Weser, 1992). Barak
et al. (1997) and Solomon (1987) suggested
that the students may fall in dilemma based on the vitalistic conception in
application of the second law of thermodynamics to basic ecological events such
as matter cycle and energy flow in biological education.
Therefore, this study analysis whether the basic laws of thermodynamics
or vitalistic conception is effective in explanation of the matter cycle
and energy flow in an ecological system by the 9th grade students.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Study pattern: This study has been performed within the scope of phenomenology
pattern which is a qualitative research pattern. In phenomenology studies, it
is generally aimed to reveal the individualistic perceptions or perspectives
regarding a certain phenomenon and to interpret the same. The questions have
been open-ended to allow the students to answer them in a wider spectrum. Open-ended
questions are more commonly used in determining the understanding levels of
the concepts as well as the misconceptions (White and Gunstone,
Sampling and the test application: This study has been performed
in Turkey, between 2006-2007 that totally forty-four 9th Grade students
(average age 14) all of whom were enrolled in the Anatolian High School
they currently study at after an eliminative test. The students have been
taking basic chemistry and physics besides biology in the 9th grade and
since they were accepted to such classes after an eliminative test, it
has been accepted that their level of knowledge is approximately equal.
In order to measure the basic knowledge of the students about the matter
cycle and energy flow and ecological diagram including sun, plants, algae,
fish, fish skeletons, bacteria and fungi has been presented to them. This
diagram has been arranged after scanning the diagrams and texts of ecology
chapters of the high school biology books and it has been confirmed to
be suitable for 9th grade students after being reviewed by three specialists
working on ecology before applying the diagram. The students have been
asked the following questions regarding the diagram:
||The events about the matter and energy cycle observed
in the ecological diagram
||Whether the vitality can be explained through physical and chemical
laws by observing the events in the diagram
||Whether the concept of energy is the same in physics and chemistry
and biology observing the ecological events in the diagram and if
there is a difference, how can it be explained
||According to the diagram to what forms the energy from the sun transforms
and what events does it trigger?
The three ecological specialists have examined the questions in terms
of the reliability of their content and concluded that the questions could
allow the determination of the basic opinions of the students with regard
to matter cycle, energy flow and thermodynamics.
Data analysis: The contents of the responses given by 44 students
have been analyzed and the responses have been analyzed in terms of whether
they include basic laws of thermodynamics and/or vitalistic conception
in explaining the matter cycle and energy flow according to a response
key prepared by three academics specializing on the subject. The responses
of true, partly true and false that are close in meaning are shown in
Table 1-4 as grouped according to percentage and frequency
distribution. For instance, the expression, the plants produce chemical
energy through photosynthesis, the animals transform it to mechanical
energy, the bacteria and fungi decompose the fish and transform into organic
matter which in turn is used by the plants again has been accepted as
true and assessed in the same category with similar responses. Similarly,
the expression the fish aspirate through the oxygen molecules in water
and produces ATP. The chemical energy decomposes the death fish. The death
fish are resolved by the bacteria and fungi has been accepted as true
but incomplete. In the outer structure of the living things physical changes
are observed while in the inner structure there are chemical changes.
Such expression has been regarded as false, because the student thinks
that the origin of the chemical and physical energy is different.
A scale between 1-4 has been used in assessment of the open-ended questions
and if the response of the student is sufficient in terms of conceptual
understanding it gets 3 points, if it is partly true it gets 2 points,
partly responses including false responses get 1 point and no response
gets 0 point and the reliability co-efficient has been found as Cronbach
α = 78.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
It is highlighted in biological education that the living systems operate in
accordance with the physical and chemical laws and that particularly the second
law of thermodynamics is applicable to biological systems. It has been seen
that although they mostly know that the vitality is formed by elements and molecules,
they ignore that these should operate in accordance with the basic laws of thermodynamics.
Therefore, it is known that the students seek a vital force having a metaphorical
nature in explaining some events in growth, development and reproduction of
the living things. It has been found that some of the students suggest that
events such as respiration, enzyme synthesis and embryonic development cannot
only be explained within physical and chemical laws and that a different force
may be in place regarding vitality (Hogan and Weathers, 2003).
The results from the studies suggest that there is a relationship between the
students understanding of biological energy and the second law of thermodynamics
and the vitality. For this reason, the fact that the origin of the energy used
in living systems is not understood by the students forced them to seek another
force to provide vitality. Although most of them seem to believe that the biological
systems operate in accordance with the physical and chemical laws, a considerable
number of students ignore these in explanation of the biological events, which
lead to misconceptions. At this point, it is important that the teachers and
the students only focus on the biological information to explain biological
events and ignore the basic physical and chemical laws.
Table 1 shows the students matter and energy cycle and interpretations
and it is shown that 36% of the students have the basic knowledge about the
general purpose of photosynthesis, use of photosynthesis products and ATP formation
as a result of respiration and energy use in decomposition process. Thirty two
percent of another student group has shown that they know that chemical energy
is produced by photosynthesis and this is transformed into other energy forms
and bacteria and fungi play role in producing organic matter as decomposers
and such organic matters are used by the plants again, which indicate that they
know the main properties of matter and energy cycle in biological systems. With
a categorical approach, 21% of the students summarized the basic events seen
in matter cycle, which shows that most of the students have basic knowledge
about matter cycle and energy flow in ecological systems. It is seen that the
students talk about physical and chemical energy types as for the origin and
types of energy and the fact that they have talked about organic molecules and
ATP production shows that they know about the energy types used in biological
systems. In general, ATP is a chemical molecule associated with energy by the
students and attracts interest because of the energy it has. However, it has
been known for along time that there are some difficulties in understanding
that ATP and the basic components of the cells operate according to the basic
laws of thermodynamics (Gayford, 1986). There are some
misconceptions about the origin and use of energy, as some of the students have
suggested that chemical energy results from chemosynthesis and the physical
energy results from decomposition, which support the previous findings.
Table 2 shows that 52% of the students use such expressions
that suggest that humans have a superior organization and so the growth
and development in the living things cannot only be explained with physical
and chemical laws. Contrary to this, 32% of the students have used expressions
suggesting that vitality can be explained with physical and chemical events
and 16% of the students stated that outer structure of a living thing
can be changed physically while the inner structure changes chemically
Although, the students accept that the vitality can be explained with physical
and chemical laws in general, it has been known that there are some problems
in explaining the relationships between maintenance of matter and vitality (Barak
et al., 1997). Thus, the students have been asked whether the growth
and development can be explained through chemical and physical laws and most
of them have said that growth and development in living things cannot be explained
through physical and chemical laws. The students seem to believe that vitality
can only be explained with biological laws, which can be seen as a reflection
of the vitalistic conception. A reflection of the conception that growth, development
and reproduction in living things is performed by a vital force may emerge as
the view that growth and development in living things cannot be explained through
physical and chemical laws (Toulmin and Goodfield, 1962).
|| The frequency and percentage distribution of students
views about matter and energy cycle
|| The frequency and percentage distribution of students
views about whether the growth and development can be explained through
chemical and physical laws
As it can be shown from Table 2, the fact that the students
suggest that biological events cannot be explained by physical and chemical
laws demonstrate that the students cannot sufficiently adapt the physical and
chemical laws applied for matter cycle and energy flow to the biological events.
The fact that some students think that physical changes affect the outer structure
of the living things while chemical changes affect the inner structures may
be an indication of the effectiveness of a vitalistic and pre-determinant teleological
In Table 3, it is shown that 50% of the students defend
that energy cannot exist out of nothing and cannot disappear while being
in existence and thus both forms of energy are the same. However, it is
seen that 32% of the students suggest that physical energy results from
physical events and the chemical energy is the inner energy of the living
thing, which is contrary to the second law of thermodynamics. Some students
have put forward that the energy in biology is generated from the living
things while the energy in physics is generated by the generators and
power sources. Some of the students (18%) have been indecisive since they
have not been sure about what they know. So, they have suggested that
the energy used in physics is related to performing job, biologic energy
is for continuity of life.
The statements such as the energy comes from the breaking molecules may result
in that students think such energy as the physical energy (material energy)
while the expression the living things get their energy from nutrition may be
perceived as the biological energy. The fact that the subject of energy is taught
for different purposes and with different examples for physics, chemistry and
biology, may result in different perception of energy for different disciplines
(Solomon, 1983, 1987; Gilbert
and Pope, 1986; Mark and Young, 1987; Kesidou
and Duit, 1993; Barak et al., 1997). The findings
demonstrate that the students tend to accept the biological energy as instinctive
force while they perceive physical energy as external energy, which very much
resembles the vitalistic conception. The vitalistic conception was used in explaining
the non-living systems acquiring vitality in the old times and according to
this theory, an external vital factor activates the organic molecules in the
living things and form vitality. Therefore, it is possible to think that there
may be similarities between the inner energy as defined by students and the
vital force suggested by the vitalistic conception. Previous findings support
such idea (Jacob, 1993). A true knowledge regarding the
physical and chemical properties of energy is very important for biological
education. This is because in some stages of learning, it has been suggested
that predetermination and anthropomorphic approach are common among students
(Lawson and Weser, 1992; Tamir and
Zohar, 1991) and that vitalistic conception may appeal to the students (Elitzur,
1994). As a supporting view, Carey (1985) defended
that biological theories arise from the human behavior while the physical laws
result from the nature of the physics and Chi (1992) suggested
that the nature of ontological change makes the learning of physics different
from biology and thus these should be taught differently. Barak
et al. (1997) talked about some biological events which are said
to be in conflict with the second law of thermodynamics and Dobzhansky
(1974) suggested that these can all be explained through the entropy theory
of thermodynamics. It has been suggested that the students believe that the
development, reproduction and biological systems are instinctive in humans,
but they have difficulty in explaining such mechanisms (Toulmin
and Goodfield, 1962). The findings suggest that although the students accept
that the biological energy is used in vital activities of the living things,
they do not practically use expression such as inorganic and organic molecules
are automatically organized with the help of the biological energy in line with
the non-vitalistic conceptions (thermodynamic laws).
According to Table 4, most of the students (43%) put
forward that sugar is produced as a result of photosynthesis and this
is stored as a starch and 23% of them explain the process scientifically
and suggest that solar energy (physical energy) is transformed to chemical
energy and stored and this is used as mechanical and heat energy. In general,
18% of them put forward that energy is stored in chemical bonds and 16%
of them suggest that the energy from the sun is not stored in animals.
||The frequency and percentage distribution of students
views about whether physical energy concept and biological energy
concepts same or different?
||The frequency and percentage distribution of students
views about storage of solar energy in plants
It is somehow difficult to apply energy maintenance law to biology and there
are some problems in understanding that the energy stored in organic molecule
bonds is used without loss in living-things which are a closed system (Dobzhansky,
1974). Different circles discuss about the fact that organic molecules come
together from the non-living molecules in accordance with certain physical and
chemical laws and that the living organization come about by itself depending
on energy. It is also suggested that the use of such terms as liquid energy,
energy making leads the students to believe that there is a partial energy loss
in matter cycle, as in the interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics
(Solomon, 1983; Kesidou and Duit, 1993). The findings
have shown that the students have true knowledge about the storage and use of
energy in general sense.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The findings of the study suggest that although the students know the physical
and chemical laws about matter cycle and energy flow as well as the second law
of thermodynamics on theoretical basis, they are faced with some difficulties
in applying to the biological facts. As similar to the results of the previous
studies (Barak et al., 1997), it is seen that
the vitalistic conception is more widespread than assumed among the students.
The fact that energy is not generally defined in physics, chemistry and biology
and energy is taught differently for different disciplines may be the main reason
of misconceptions among students.
The findings of research showed that the origin of the energy used in
living systems is not understood well by the students that forced them
to seek another force to provide vitality. It seems that most of them
seem to believe that the biological systems operate in accordance with
the physical and chemical laws, but it has been detected that a considerable
number of students ignore these in explanation of the biological events,
which lead to misconceptions. At this point, it is important to advise
that the teachers and the students not should only focus on the biological
knowledge to explain basic biological events; they should not ignore the
basic physical and chemical laws during explaining biological events.
The findings of study suggest that a true knowledge regarding the physical
and chemical properties of energy is very important for biological education
that should not disregard during teaching process. Because students tend
to accept the biological energy as instinctive force while they perceive
physical energy as external energy, which very much resembles the vitalistic
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