Is Earth a hollow ball, round plate or an egg?

In fact, the Earth is round, but these were some of the alternative shapes that a sample of students suggested when quizzed about the Earth’s shape as part of a study.
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Updated on Jan 31, 2011 01:40 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByBhavya Dore, Mumbai

The Earth is a hollow ball

The Earth is a round plate

The Earth is an egg

In fact, the Earth is round, but these were some of the alternative shapes that a sample of students suggested when quizzed about the Earth’s shape as part of a study.

This is one of the misconceptions that researchers at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) documented in a series of papers on various misconceptions that government-aided school students of classes 4 to 7 have relating to astronomy.

The latest study, published in the November 15, 2010, issue of the International Journal of Science Education, shows how to systematically teach astronomy concepts to middle school students by using gestures and actions.

“One difficulty with using models is that they are difficult to reconcile with earth-based observations, for which we need to imagine ourselves to be ‘inside’ the model,” said Jayashree Ramadas, one of the researchers.

“Secondly, in textbooks we find diagrams, which are two dimensional, static and abstract. Students are unable to connect models to the corresponding diagrams. So we have proposed that gestures can act as intermediaries between models and diagrams.”

The research proposes 40 different kinds of gestures to teach different astronomical concepts. For instance, students can learn about the concept of the Earth’s revolutions around the sun by themselves enacting the roles of the earth as a moving body while the sun is fixed.

Or to understand the solar system a teacher can assign one planet to each student and ask him or her to rotate around the sun at different speeds to help them understand relative speeds of the planets.

The research sample comprised 174 students from classes 4 and 7 from rural schools, urban schools and tribal schools and tracked them over the course of a year.

The paper observed that one of the major difficulties for students lay in imagining the vast sizes and distances in astronomy, which are essential to constructing spatial mental models. Students often have little idea of the larger units of measurement.

“Students tended to guess the answers rather than approaching the problem through geometrical construction,” said Shamin Padalkar, a research scholar who co-wrote the paper. “Students’ mental models were fragmented. The relationships between different entities were unclear and were not always constant.”

The paper suggests that these issues can be tackled by gestures or “actions” as they provide the bridge between the phenomenon and the mental model. “Students enjoyed the new pedagogy and it was effective for improving their conceptual understanding and mastery over diagrams in astronomy,” said the researchers.

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