The Alternative Models of the Universe: A Cross-Cultural Study on Students’ and Historical Ideas about the Heavens and the Earth with a View towards Reshaping Science Instruction 

University of Oldenburg, Germany

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The inclusion of the history of science in the science curriculum has been in discussion for decades. Moreover, there seems to be a general acceptance that the historical aspect of science should be an important component of science taught in school. Its practice, however, remains insufficient for reasons such as the problems in accessing the historiography for science educators and teachers, and locating the material in learning situations. The study reported in this thesis intends to tackle these problems. It consists of investigating students’ alternative conceptions and reviews of historical ideas in the domain of observational astronomy, in particular the conceptions of the universe. These two domains of data collection are carried out in two countries, Germany and Taiwan. It is aimed to approach history-oriented science instruction that starts with students’ perspectives and has sensitivity to cultural contexts.

Sixty-four students from the third to sixth grades were interviewed. This number is evenly distributed across country, gender and grade lines. The result of the study shows that the astronomical ideas presented by the students and in history both exhibit a structural from- the model of the universe. The historical models can therefore play an important role in making students reflect upon their own ideas. Students appeared to have either earth-centered or sun-centered views, similar to the early European astronomers, when thinking about the earth and heaven. Nevertheless, they seemed to refer to “the heavens and the earth” as a confined observational area in space, like the early Chinese astronomers did, as virtually all of them knew that the universe is infinite. None of the students’ models have the layers of celestial spheres, which featured the Greek tradition of European astronomy. For many of the students, the sun, moon and earth seemed to have physical relations, whereas the stars were conceived often as relatively independent. These alternative models are different from the Western or the Chinese ones presented in early history, but nevertheless, have the features of both concepts.

After elaborating students’ and historical conceptions of the heavens and the earth, the thesis concludes with some suggestions on using historical models in science instruction. Mainly, historical models can be embraced in the science classroom for model-based learning. They can be operated as intermediate models in the learning process towards understanding of the perspective beyond the surface of the earth, of the intended scientific knowledge, and of the structural view of nature. Moreover, they can be related to hands-on experience, such as the replication of simple historical experiments.

Key words: alternative conceptions, models of the universe, history of science, science instruction, Taiwan, Germany

Full reference for the thesis

Liu, S.-C. (2005). The alternative models of the universe: A cross-cultural study on students’ and historical ideas about the heavens and the earth with a view towards reshaping science instruction. Beitraege zur Didaktischen Rekonstruktion, Bd. 8. Didaktisches Zentrum Oldenburg (Germany). 218 pp. ISSN: 1617-3139. ISBN: 3-8142-0954-0.


Shu-Chiu Liu

Physics Education/ History and Philosophy of Science

Institute of Physics

University of Oldenburg

26111 Oldenburg


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