Conceptual understanding of epistemological issues in chemistry

As discussed in this post, epistemological components make up part of the complex cognitive processes that help students to understand threshold concepts. The epistemological components are to do with how arguments and explanations are built in a discipline.

In chemistry, this is mainly to do with the use of theoretical models (and how they differ from reality) and the use of experiments to collect data that supports these theoretical models. It is also important the students understand that new data can be used to disprove models or change and adapt them. Models are not static, and most likely never will be. Further, students should understand that models can be used to make predictions about interactions between particles and that, if the predictions prove correct, the validity of the model is further enhanced.

These conceptual understandings might help students understand the above points and at some point in the chemistry curriculum, it might be useful to scaffold students learning so that they can uncover these (by the way, these conceptual understandings need a lot of work – they are just a starting point):

  • Models can be used to conceptualise reality. Chemistry example: the atomic model is used to conceptualise atoms. 
  • Experimental information about light-matter interactions can be used to build arguments and theoretical models. Chemistry example: experimental information of light-matter interactions has led scientists to their current models of atomic structure.
  • Theoretical models can be used to predict the behaviour of unknowns. Chemistry example: Mendeleev predicting properties of missing elements in his early version of the periodic table went a long way to people accepting that this was a useful model for arranging the elements.
  • Theoretical models may change when new experimental information that contradicts the model is discovered. Chemistry examples: the development of the atomic model. Chemistry example: the Bohr model of the atom only works for Hydrogen and could not be used to predict the atomic structures of other atoms. New data led to the development of current models.

I believe that helping students uncover these conceptual understandings that link important ideas together will help them to reach a greater expertise and understanding in chemistry. What do you think?

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