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The topic of electricity often poses difficulties for many secondary school students in physics lessons. Physics Education researchers at Goethe University and the University of Tübingen have developed and empirically evaluated a new, intuitive curriculum as part of a major comparative study. The result: not only do secondary school students gain a better conceptual understanding of electric circuits, but teachers also perceive the curriculum as a significant improvement in their teaching.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Wilhelm, Goethe University Frankfurt. Photo: Felix Richter

Life without electricity is something that is no longer imaginable. Whether it be a smartphone, hair-dryer or a ceiling lamp – the technical accomplishments we hold dear all require electricity. Although every child at school learns that electricity can only flow in a closed electric circuit, what is actually the difference between current and voltage? Why is a plug socket a potential death-trap but a simple battery is not? And why does a lamp connected to a power strip not become dimmer when a second lamp is plugged in?

Jun-Prof. Dr. Jan-Philipp Burde, University of Tübingen. Photo: Friedhelm Albrecht

Research into physics education has revealed that even after the tenth grade many secondary school students are not capable of answering such fundamental questions about simple electric circuits despite their teachers’ best efforts. Against this backdrop, Jan-Philipp Burde, who recently became a junior professor at the University of Tübingen, in the framework of his doctoral thesis supervised by Prof. Thomas Wilhelm at Goethe University, developed an innovative curriculum for simple electric circuits, which specifically builds upon the everyday experiences of the students. In contrast to the approaches taken to date, from the very outset the new curriculum aims to help students develop an intuitive understanding of voltage. In analogy to air pressure differences that cause an air stream (e.g. at an inflated air mattress), voltage is introduced as an “electric pressure difference” that causes an electric current. A comparative study with 790 school pupils at secondary schools in Frankfurt showed that the new curriculum led to a significantly improved understanding of electric circuits compared to traditional physics tuition. Moreover, the participating teachers also stated that using the new curriculum fundamentally improved their teaching.

The two researchers from Frankfurt and Tübingen have now published a detailed description of the theoretical considerations underlying the teaching concept in the renowned international journal “Physical Review Physics Education Research” in the framework of the “Focused Collection: Theory into Design”. The German Society for Chemistry and Physics Education (GDCP) awarded its “GDCP-Nachwuchspreis”, a prize presented each year for the best dissertation or post-doctoral thesis in chemistry and physics education in the German-speaking region, to Burde for his dissertation. As of the winter semester 2019/20 Burde was appointed to a junior professorship for Physics Education Research supported by the Vector Foundation at the University of Tübingen. On the basis of his work a cross-border consortium encompassing the Universities Tübingen, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Dresden, Graz and Vienna has been constituted with the objective of making the subject of “simple electric circuits” more interesting and more comprehensible by embedding the topic in contexts from daily life.

Teaching concept: A battery generates an electric pressure difference (left), which leads to an electric current through a lamp when it is connected (right). Graphic: Jan-Philipp Burde, University of Tübingen

Publications:

Jan-Philipp Burde and Thomas Wilhelm (2020). Teaching electric circuits with a focus on potential differences. In: Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 16, 020153, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.16.020153

Jan-Philipp Burde (2018): Konzeption und Evaluation eines Unterrichtskonzepts zu einfachen Stromkreisen auf Basis des Elektronengasmodells. Studien zum Physik- und Chemielernen, Band 259, Logos-Verlag, Berlin, ISBN: 978-3-8325-4726-4, http://doi.org/10.30819/4726