Upper Secondary Students' Understanding of the Basic Physical Interactions in Analogous Atomic and Solar Systems
Comparing the atom to a ‘tiny solar system’ is a common teaching analogy, and the extent to which learners saw the systems as analogous was investigated. English upper secondary students were asked parallel questions about the physical interactions between the components of a simple atomic system and a simple solar system to investigate how they understood the forces acting within the two systems. A sample of just over 100 across the 15–18 age range responded to a pencil-and-paper instrument that asked about four aspects of the two systems. It was found that for both systems, about four fifths of students expected forces to decrease with increasing distance; but that only a little over half expected there to be interactions between the minor constituents (electrons and planets). Most students failed to apply Newton's third law to either system. There was a considerable difference in the extent to which respondents were able to identify the type of force acting in the systems (nearly all for the solar system, but only a small proportion in the case of the atom). The
findings are considered in terms of both the limitations of students' understanding of the basic physics and possible implications for the use of the teaching analogy.