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Floating and sinking is a common activity in early years classrooms. Students' ideas about floating and sinking are intriguing. The strategies for developing their understandings discussed in this topic are examples of the probing, investigative and challenging activities that characterise effective science teaching and learning.
The activities in this topic are designed to explore the following key concepts:
Research into student's ideas about this topic has identified a number of non-scientific conceptions.
Students will have views about at least three aspects of floating and sinking that differ from science views. These alternative views centre around the questions:
Interviews reveal that students can attach different meanings to the term 'floating' and that these meanings vary depending on the context (such as observing real objects in water as opposed to viewing line drawings). The students still seem to be at the formative level with respect to this idea and there are likely to be students in most classrooms whose understanding of 'floating' differs from scientists. Some students could become confused if teachers do not recognise this.
Students have a range of views about why some things float while others sink. Younger students (7-10 years) often do not realise that there could be a single explanation. Their response is to give explanations for individual materials. The explanations offered could be described as partial explanations. They focus on specific aspects such as lightness or heaviness and fail to take into account other aspects (such as size) needed to formulate a general rule that would explain all cases. Very few students seem to have an understanding of flotation that approximates that of scientists. Others realise that they do not really know why things float or sink, but they appear interested to know.
A number of students think that the length of floating material, or the depth of water underneath or on top of an object, affects flotation level. Some further believe that floating material will sink if the part above the water is cut off, or if it has vertical holes put through it. After initial experiences with reshaped nonfloating material, almost all students realise that non-floating material can be shaped to float.