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Investigating Student Ideas about Cosmology II: Composition of the Universe
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Figures

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Figure 3.1.

Interviews: Origins of the chemical elements, theme frequencies. All students were briefly introduced to the history of the Universe (including BBN) in the first few weeks of class. Detailed instruction breaks down as follows: prestars:  = 2, poststars (but pre-BBN):  = 3, post-BBN (and poststars):  = 4.

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Figure 3.2.

Final Exam: Essay question on composition, theme frequencies.  58 essays were collected. However, a correct answer includes several themes, so the percentages add up to more than 100%. Students were asked to discuss the origins of several chemical elements, including: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and iron.

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Figure 4.1.

Postinstruction interviews: what is dark matter, theme frequencies.  10.

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Figure 4.2.

Postinstruction interviews: How we know dark matter exists, theme frequencies.  8.

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Figure 4.3.

Examples of partial understanding of the rotation curves of spiral galaxies. (a) This student drew the rotation curve (approximately) correctly but labeled the x-axis wrong and explained the speeds of stars according to the graph wrong. (b) This student is correct in saying that stars toward the center move slower, but did not draw the correct rotation curve for a spiral galaxy.

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Figure 5.1.

Post-instruction interviews: dark energy.  = 5. Students were asked if they had ever heard of the term dark energy, and what they think it means.

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Figure 6.1.

Interviews: anything in the Universe not made of chemical elements, theme frequencies. Pre:  4. Post:  6.

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Figure 6.2.

Final Exam: Essay question whether there is anything not made of chemical elements in the Universe, theme frequencies.  48 essays were collected and analyzed for themes. Students were only required to give one example, but some students listed more than one, so percentages can add up to more than 100%.

Tables

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Table 2.

Relative schedule of topics, cosmology-related laboratory activities, and data collection points. The schedule was the same for all five semesters of data collection. Interviews (labeled A-O) were collected over four semesters

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Table 2.

Coding scheme for open-response prelab and post-test essay questions

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Table 3.

Final Exam: Origin of chemical elements (Essay)

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Table 4.

Lab 8 Pretest: Reading rotation curves (part a)

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Table 4.

Lab 8 Pretest: Reading rotation curves (part b)

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Table 4.

Lab 8 Pretest: Dark matter and rotation curves (part c)

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Table 4.

Exam 3: Sketch and explain rotation curve (Essay; overall score)

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Table 5.

Exam 3: Dark matter and rotation curves (Essay)

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Table 5.

Exam 3: Dark matter (T/F)

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Table 5.

Final Exam: Dark matter (T/F)

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Table 5.

Final Exam: Dark matter (MC)

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Table 5.

Exam 3: Dark energy (MC)

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Table 6.

Exam 3: Composition of the Universe (MC)

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Table 6.

Final Exam: Composition of the Universe (MC)

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Table 6.

Final Exam: Anything not made of chemical elements and the evidence for it (Essay)

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Table 3.

Final Exam: Origin of Chemical Elements (Essay)

Our bodies (and other living things on Earth) contain several chemical elements, including: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and iron. Discuss how each of these elements was formed and came to be in our bodies.

The lightest elements, including hydrogen, were made when the universe was a few minutes old and a few million degrees in temperature during Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Heavier elements, including carbon, oxygen, and iron were made in the cores of massive stars through nuclear fusion in the death stages of the star's lifecycle. (Oxygen was made in abundance in Earth's atmosphere by (plant) life through photosynthesis. All of the elements in our bodies are taken in from our environment but have been around for much longer, just in a different form.)

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Table 4.

Lab 8 pretest, Part A: Reading Rotation Curves

What does this figure tell you about how the speeds of stars far from the center of the galaxy compare to the speeds of stars close to the center of the galaxy?

Stars far from the center are moving faster than stars in the center.

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Table 4.

Lab 8 pretest, Part B: Reading Rotation Curves

Rank the speeds of stars at distances A, B, and C

A < B = C

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Table 4.

Lab 8 pretest, Part C: Dark Matter and Rotation Curves

Explain why the rotation curves of spiral galaxies like the one shown above are evidence for dark matter.

The gravitational force from the visible mass is not enough to cause the observed motion. There must be dark matter providing mass also in order to cause the observed rotation curves.

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Table 4.

Exam 3. Rotation Curves of Spiral Galaxies (Essay)

Sketch a rotation curve for a typical spiral galaxy. Be sure to label the axes. How do the speeds of stars far from the center of the galaxy compare to the speeds of stars close to the center of the galaxy?

The velocities of stars far from the center of the galaxy are faster than those of stars close to the center. As distance increases the velocities of stars increase to a certain point and then they remain constant.

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Table 5.

Exam 3. Dark Matter and Rotation Curves (Essay)

Explain why the rotation curves of spiral galaxies are evidence for dark matter, i.e., Explain the steps you would take to measure the amount of dark matter in a spiral galaxy.

We measure the total gravitational mass from the rotation curves: the faster something is moving, the greater the mass encircled. We measure the luminous mass from a plot of brightness vs. radius. A spiral galaxy has mass distributed throughout. The mass from just the visible parts of the galaxies is a small fraction compared to the total gravitational mass. Therefore, there must be dark matter providing mass also in order to cause the observed rotation curves.

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Table 5.

Exam 3: Dark Matter (T/F)

Dark matter is the matter that we have identified from its gravitational effects but we cannot see in any wavelengths of light. / False

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Table 5.

Final Exam: Dark Matter (T/F)

Dark matter is the matter that we have identified from its gravitational effects but we cannot see in any wavelengths of light. / False

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Table 5.

Final Exam: Dark Matter (MC)

The shape of our Galaxy's rotation curve implies the existence of

  • a.  a mysterious, unknown force.
  • b. 
  • c.  dark energy.
  • d.  pulsars.
  • e.  missing gas and dust.

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Table 5.

Exam 3. Dark Energy (MC)

Which of the following best summarizes what we mean by dark energy?

  • a.  It is a type of energy that is associated with the “dark side” of the force that rules the universe.
  • b.  It is the energy of black holes.
  • c.  It is the energy contained in dark matter.
  • d. 

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Table 6.

Exam 3: Overall Composition of Universe (MC)

The overall composition of the universe is

  • a.  100% ordinary matter
  • b.  2% ordinary matter, 98% exotic dark matter
  • c.  15% ordinary matter, 85% exotic dark matter
  • d. 

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Table 6.

Final Exam: Overall Composition of Universe (MC)

The overall composition of the universe is

  • a.  100% ordinary matter
  • b.  2% ordinary matter, 98% exotic dark matter
  • c.  15% ordinary matter, 85% exotic dark matter
  • d. 

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Table 6.

Final Exam: Composition (Essay)

Give one example of something in the universe that is not made of any chemical elements and how we know it exists.

Possible examples include, but are not limited to: dark matter (rotation curves, motions of galaxies in clusters, lensing), dark energy (accelerating expansion of the universe), subatomic particles (particle detectors).

Abstract

Continuing our work from a previous study (Coble 2013), we examine undergraduates' ideas on the composition of the Universe as they progress through a general education astronomy integrated lecture and laboratory course with a focus on active learning. The study was conducted over five semesters at an urban minority-serving institution. The data collected include individual interviews ( = 15) and course artifacts ( ∼ 60), such as prelab surveys, and midterm and final exam questions in a variety of formats. We find that students easily obtain a superficial knowledge of the origins of the chemical elements and the existence of dark matter and dark energy, which they are generally unaware of pre-instruction. However, they are hindered in their ability to reproduce the argument for the existence of dark matter at least in part because of weaknesses in their graph-reading abilities.

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Scitation: Investigating Student Ideas about Cosmology II: Composition of the Universe
http://aip.metastore.ingenta.com/content/aas/journal/aer/12/1/10.3847/AER2012039
10.3847/AER2012039
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