Odell MST: Conservation of Mass/Energy

Jessica Odell
Student Understanding of Conservation of Mass/Energy in Introductory University Science Courses
Unpublished M.S.T. thesis, August 2005

In the Fall of 2004, student understanding of conservation of energy and mass was measured in four introductory-level science courses (biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics) at the University of Maine. Each course fulfilled one semester of the University’s general science education requirement. A 20 question, multiple-choice survey was administered to students in the four courses, in a pre/post-test format. Ten questions on the survey involved the application of the concepts of conservation of energy and mass in either local or system-wide situations, and were scored to calculate gain.

Sub-groups of students were compiled by taking only those who were taking one science course during the semester. Average normalized gain was calculated for each sub-group to allow for comparison between courses. Students taking the biology course had significant improvement in the systems applications, while students taking the chemistry course showed improvement on the local-level applications. Students enrolled concurrently in biology and chemistry showed significant gains in both subsets of the survey, with an overall gain greater than students enrolled in each of the courses individually. Students enrolled in the physics course showed no significant gains, while earth science students showed significant negative gain on the local applications subset of the survey. The results suggest that there is a difference between the introductory courses that fulfill the University of Maine’s general science education requirement, in terms of improving student understanding of conservation of energy and mass.