Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, is awe-inspiring. Studying astronomy can be as simple as peering out at the universe through a telescope, watching a meteor shower, or simply looking out your window at night at the stars. But, can we really define the concept of the universe? If we ask an adult that question, we'll probably get a mostly correct answer. But when we ask the same question to children, the answer might surprise us, depending on what language they speak.
In a study published in Participatory Educational Research, more than 100 students from 7th grade (11 to 13 years old) were asked about their concepts of the universe, the Sun, comets, and constellations. They were given four options, only one of which was scientifically correct. The other ones represented misconceptions in astronomy, which children are usually exposed to through everyday experiences such as incorrect concept formation in school, unscientific use of language, and even changes in meaning when words are translated between languages. These experiences can misinform students and that can affect their understandings of astronomy.
For example, when the children were asked to define a comet, these were the options presented:
- Comets are fast-moving stars
- Comets are non-moving stars
- Comets are not stars, they reflect the light of the sun and are made of frozen ice, dust, and gas
- A comet is a falling star, as the stars fall down, they appear to have a tail, and people make wishes when they see them
Only the third option was correct. Nonetheless, just 20 percent of all participants could answer and explain their option correctly. The researchers used these findings to discuss how the languages that children speak could influence their understanding of the concept: In Turkish, the term “comet” is translated as “tailed star”. Similarly, in Spanish, the term meteor shower is translated to “rain of stars”, when in reality meteor showers do not involve stars at all. This study suggests that a revision of the concepts given to children is necessary, especially when the language itself can bring misconceptions.