Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
Restless Landscapes Children’s Ideas About Glaciers
Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography). Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this?
1. Landforms of similar appearance have a common origin.
The forces and processes that shape the Earth’s surface occur over immense periods of time, and are quite complex. Without knowledge of these aspects of landforms, it is difficult to appreciate the many and varied ways that landforms are created and sculpted. Children are quite literal in their interpretation of the world, and it is easy for them to assume that things that look the same, such as two valleys, are created in the same way, when in fact one may have been formed by a stream and the other by a glacier.
2. Glaciers don’t move.
Glaciers are enormous rivers of ice that move very slowly (meters or tens of meters per year). Typically, though there are some exceptions, glacial movement is too slow to be easily observable. Also, glaciers are not readily available for observation in most parts of the world, so are outside of ordinary experience for many children. As is true with tectonic plates, the sheer immensity of the size of glaciers seems to suggest that they do not move, and many children believe this.
3. Children’s ideas about glaciers do not indicate an understanding of the erosion that glaciers cause.
Glaciers gouge and scrape the landscapes over which they flow. Watching the water or the wind transport grains of sand and soil and weathering rock is common to everyday experience. This typifies the way children and adults think of erosion. As a result, a huge, seemingly stationary mass of ice does not inspire thoughts of erosion.
4. Groundwater typically occurs in the form of basins, lakes, and fast flowing streams underground.
Groundwater is stored relatively close to the surface in underground aquifers. Common aquifers include porous rock and sand. Groundwater percolates through the spaces in aquifers, and does not exist as a body of water in the same way as water does on the surface. Popular media is replete with images of underwater lakes, rivers, and flowing streams that exist in caverns deep within the interior of the Earth.
- Dove, J. Immaculate Misconceptions. Sheffield, UK: The Geographical Association, 1999.
- Happs, J. “Glaciers.” Science Education Research Unit Paper 202. University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1982.
- Philips, W. “Earth Science Misconceptions.” Science Teacher 58 no, 2 (1991): 21 – 23.
Session 1 Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil
How does soil appear on a newly born, barren volcanic island? In this session, participants explore how soil is formed, its role in certain Earth processes, its composition and structure, and its place in the structure of the Earth.
Session 2 Every Rock Tells A Story
How can we use rocks to understand events in the Earth's past? In this session, participants explore the processes that form sedimentary rocks, learn how fossils are preserved, and are introduced to the theory of plate tectonics.
Session 3 Journey to the Earth’s Interior
How do we know what the interior of the Earth is like if we've never been there? In this session, participants examine the internal structure of the Earth and learn how it is possible for entire continents to move across its surface.
Session 4 The Engine That Drives the Earth
What drives the movement of tectonic plates? In this session, participants learn how plates interact at plate margins, how volcanoes work, and the story of Hawaii's formation.
Session 5 When Continents Collide
How is it possible that marine fossils are found on Mount Everest, the world's highest continental mountain? In this session, participants learn what happens when continents collide and how this process shapes the surface of the Earth.
Session 6 Restless Landscapes
If almost all mountains are formed the same way, why do they look so different? In this session, participants learn about the forces continually at work on the surface of the Earth that sculpt the ever-changing landscape.
Session 7 Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon
Why is the Moon, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, so different from the Earth? In this session, participants explore the complex connections between the Earth and Moon, the origin of the Moon, and the roles played by gravity and collisions in the Earth-Moon system.
Session 8 Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System
Why do all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction and why are the planets closest to the Sun so different from the gas giants farther out? In this session, participants gain a better understanding of the nature of the solar system by examining its formation.