The topic of electricity often poses difficulties for many secondary school students in physics lessons. Physics Education Researchers at the 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.
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?
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 teaching. Moreover, the participating teachers also stated that using the new curriculum fundamentally improved their teaching.