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Can Computer Animations Affect College Biology Students' Conceptions about Diffusion &

Author(s): Michael J. Sanger, Dorothy M. Brecheisen, Brian M. Hynek
Source: The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Feb., 2001), pp. 104-109
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Association of Biology Teachers
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Can Computer Animations Affect College
Biology Smdents' ConceptionsAbout
Diffusion & Osmosis?
Michael J. Sanger Dorothy M. Brecheisen BrianM. Hynek

T HE conceptsof diffusionand osmosisare very affect students' conceptions of these topics. Students'
important for biology students to understand. conceptions of diffusion and osmosis topics were
Diffusion is the primary method of short-dis- measured using the Diffusion and Osmosis Diagnostic
tance transport in cells and cellular systems. Osmosis Test (Odom 1995; Odom & Barrow 1995).
is used to explain water uptake by plants, turgor
pressure in plants, water balance in aquatic creatures,
and transport in living organisms (Odom 1995).
Unfortunately, students find these topics very difficult This study was performed using 149 students
to understand (Friedler, Amir & Tamir 1987) and enrolled in a second-semester introductory college
several biology education researchers have reported biology course at a small Midwestern university.
student misconceptions associated with these topics These students are predominantly first-year biology
(Marek 1986; Zuckerman 1994; Odom & Barrow 1995). majors who were also enrolled in a second-semester
One reason why students may have difficulty with introductory college chemistry course. All of these
the concepts of diffusion and osmosis is because students attended the same lecture section which met
these concepts require students to visualize and think for three hours per week and was taught by a college
about chemical processes at the molecular level (John- biology instructor who has taught this class three
stone & Mahmoud 1980; Friedler, Amir & Tamir times a year for 12 years. Each student was also
1987; Westbrook & Marek 1991). enrolled in one of six different laboratory sections
A decade ago, Nurrenbern and Pickering (1987) containing 21 to 28 students who were taught by a
discovered that students who are successful in solving college biology instructor or a graduate student.
numerical chemistry problems did not necessarily This research study was performed in the labora-
understand the molecular concepts underlying these tory sections after the students had received instruc-
problems. Since that time, others have documented tion on diffusion and osmosis in the lecture section.
students' difficulties in answering visual conceptual The laboratory sections were randomly assigned to
questions based on the particulate nature of matter either the control or experimental group. Students
(Gabel, Samuel & Hunn 1987; Sawrey 1990; Pickering in the experimental group received instruction using
1990; Nakhleh 1993). Research in this area has demon- two computer animations to explain the molecular
strated that instruction involving computer anima- behaviors associated with the processes of diffusion.
tions can facilitate the development of students' visu- Both groups performed several experiments including
alization skills and their abilities to think about chemi- the diffusion of potassium permanganate in water,
cal processes at the molecular level (Williamson & the osmosis of water and glucose (but not starch)
Abraham 1995; Russell et al. 1997; Sanger & Green- through cellulose dialysis tubing, and the effect on
bowe 1997). the cells of an Elodea leaf after being placed in
The purpose of this study was to determine hypotonic, isotonic and hypertonic solutions. The
whether viewing computer animations depicting the major difference between the two groups is that the
molecular processes of diffusion and osmosis would experimental group viewed two animations before
performing these experiments while the control group
Michael J. Sanger is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and did not.
Science Education and Dorothy M. Brecheisen is an Instruc- The first animation depicted the molecular pro-
tor of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls,
IA 50614-0423. Brian M. Hynek was an undergraduate earth cesses occurring when perfume particles diffuse
science and all sciences teaching major at the University through the air (Figure 1). The perfume particles
of Northern Iowa and is now a graduate student in Earth and were represented as pink circles (since the perfume
Planetary Sciences at Washington University, One Brookings
Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899. molecules would be very complex) and air was repre-
sented as N2 and 02 molecules. As the animation


FS 0

Figure 1. Computer screen image of the diffusion of perfume molecules (circles) in air.

proceeds, the perfume particles and the air molecules rises and eventually levels out. The animation also
collide with themselves and with each other until depicts the molecular processes occurring in this
all of the particles are evenly distributed throughout experiment (Figure 2). The semi-permeable membrane
the screen. Students in the experimental group viewed is represented as a dashed line that separates the
this animation three times while the first author Karo? syrup solution on top from the water on
narrated the action appearing on the screen, empha- bottom. The syrup particles are represented as brown
sizing that the random motion and collisions of circles for simplicity and the Karo? syrup solution
these particles leads to this even distribution. This contains both syrup particles and H20 molecules.
description of the movement of perfume molecules The holes in the semi-permeable membrane were
in a room is simplistic and ignores other mixing made large enough for the water molecules to pass
processes (such as convection currents). However, it through but small enough so that the sugar particles
does correctly demonstrate that all gaseous molecules cannot pass through them.
are in constant motion and, in the absence of convec- Students in the experimental group viewed the
tion currents or other forces, these molecules will molecular portion of the second animation three
slowly mix via diffusion. times. The first time, the students were simply
The second animation starts with a drawing of a directed to watch the animation. These students were
thistle tube experiment that the students had seen asked which particles could travel through the mem-
and discussed in lecture (Zuckerman 1994, 1995). It brane and why and in what direction these particles
starts with a thistle tube covered by a semi-permeable moved. In each section, the students replied that
membrane and filled with Karo? syrup that has been water molecules could travel through the barrier but
placed in a beaker of water. As the process of osmosis the syrup particles could not due to size effects, and
occurs, the Karo? syrup level in the thistle slowly that the water molecules traveled in both directions

\~~ -- N

Figure 2. Computer screen image of the osmosis of water molecules through a semi-permeable membrane between pure water
and a syrup solution.

but more water molecules moved from the pure To determine the effects of viewing the computer
water into the syrup solution. The students viewed animations, responses to the questions on the DODT
the animation again, with half of the class counting were compared from students who viewed the anima-
the number of water molecules entering the syrup tions and from those who did not.
solution and the other half counting the number of
water molecules entering the water solution. The
Results & Discussion
students reported that there were nine water mole-
cules entering the syrup solution throughout the Odom (1995) reported a list of student misconcep-
animation and four molecules entering the water tions he identified using the DODT. The number
solution, predominantly at the end of the animation. and percentage of the students choosing responses
The students were then allowed to watch the anima- consistent with these misconceptions were tabulated
tion one more time. for the control and experimental groups, and these
After performing the laboratory experiments men- numbers were checked for statistically significant
tioned above, both sets of students were asked to differences. Table 1 contains a list of misconceptions
respond to the Diffusion and Osmosis Diagnostic for which we found significant differences.
Test (DODT). The DODT consists of 12 two-tier The most striking difference is that students who
multiple choice questions. The first-tier responses are viewed the animations were less likely to choose
based on content questions, while the second-tier responses suggesting that particle motion stops after
responses ask students to explain their choices in equilibrium is reached (Misconceptions 1 and 2). While
the first tier. The responses in the second tier are 8% of the students in the control group believed that
based on misconceptions identified by student dye and water molecules stop moving once they are
responses to these questions and student interviews. mixed because otherwise the container would be

Table 1. Number (percentage) of student responses consistent with misconceptions measured by the Diffusion and
Osmosis Diagnostic Test.

Misconceptions Controla Experimentalb

1. When a drop of blue dye is placed in a container of clear water, the dye molecules 6 (8) 0 (0)
stop; otherwise the container would be different shades of blue.
2. Particles move from high to low concentration because they tend to move until the two 27 (36) 14 (19)
areas are isotonic and then the particles stop moving.
3.- When a drop of dye is placed in a container of clear water, the dye molecules continue 2 (3) 10 (14)
to move around because if they stopped, they would settle to the bottom of the
4. As the difference in concentration increases between two areas, the rate of diffusion 36 (47) 23 (32)
increases because the molecules want to spread out.
5. When sugar is added to water, after a very long time the sugar will be more 2 (3) 8 (11)
concentrated on the bottom of the container because sugar dissolves poorly or not at all
in water.

aN = 76 students
bN = 73 students

different shades of blue, none of the students who dents agreeing with the statement above attribute
viewed the animation chose this response (z = - 2.45, these motions not to random collisions but to the
p = .014). Similarly, more students in the control wants or desires of the molecules.
group believed that particles move until they are Although the animations had a positive effect on
isotonic and then stop moving than in the experimen- students' conceptions about the particulate nature and
tal group (36% versus 19%), z = -2.23 and p = random motion of matter, the animation appeared to
.026. In general, it appears that these animations convince students that sugar does not dissolve in
were successful in helping students understand the water (Misconception5). While only 3% of the students
dynamic nature of equilibrium processes, which is in the control group believed that sugar does not
a common and persistent misconception exhibited dissolve well in water, 11% of the students who
by students in chemistry classes as well (Gorodetsky viewed the animations chose this response (z = 2.05,
& Gussarsky 1986). p = .040). Discussions with students revealed that
Although the students who viewed the animations they interpreted the brown circles surrounded with
were less likely to believe that the particles stop water molecules in the second animation (Figure 2)
moving once they reach equilibrium, they were more as suggesting that the sugar and water particles did
likely to exhibit a misconception about why these not completely mix with each other and that these
particles do not stop moving (Misconception3). While sugar particles did not dissolve in water. This diffi-
only 3% of the students in the control group believed culty stems from students trying to apply rules that
that dye and water molecules keep moving once work at the macroscopic level, like "if you can see
they are mixed because otherwise they would settle
to the bottom of the container, 14% of the students
in the experimental group chose this response (z =
2.49, p = .013). It appears that although the anima-
tions convinced students that the particles do not
stop moving once they reach equilibrium, it was not Science Item Writers - The General Educational
completely effective at convincing them why they Development Testing Service (GEDTS) is recruit-
don't stop moving (random motion).
ing science teachers to prepare brief passages in-
On the other hand, students who viewed the anima-
tions were less likely to attribute molecular motions cluding graphics and multiple-choice test items for
to anthropomorphic "desires" of the molecules (Mis- the new GED 2002 Series Science Test. The GED
conception 4). More students in the control group Tests measure the majoracademic skills and know-
believed that as the difference in concentration ledge associated with a four year high school pro-
increases between two areas, the rate of diffusion
increases because the molecules want to spread out gram of study. Please send your name, address,
than in the experimental group (47% versus 32%), phone number,and resume to: DavidKuhn,GEDTS,
z = - 1.98 and p = .048. Both Zuckerman (1994) One Dupont Circle, NW Suite 250, Washington, DC
and Odom and Barrow (1995) cited the importance 20036-1163: (office) (202) 939-9494; (E-mail)david
of understanding the concept of osmosis as the result
of random molecular motions, and claimed that stu-
kuhn@ace.nche.edu; (Fax) (202) 939-8578.

the particles, the compound has not dissolved in animations at the particulate level can help students
water," to pictures at the molecular level (Sanger understand chemistry and biology concepts involving
1999). molecular processes. Some of these biology concepts
include Brownian motion, diffusion, osmosis, 3D
Implications for the Classroom structure of DNA, cellular transport mechanisms
(membrane structure, passive and active transport,
This study demonstrates that students who viewed etc.), and enzyme-substrate complexes.
computer animations depicting the molecular pro- Many newer versions of college biology textbooks
cesses occurring when perfume particles diffuse in air are packaged with a CD-ROM containing instruc-
and when water osmoses through a semi-permeable tional resources, including computer animations of
membrane developed more accurate conceptions of molecular processes (Krogh 2000; Raven & Johnson
these processes based on the particulate nature and 1999). High school biology textbooks, on the other
random motion of matter (Misconception4). They also hand, tend to come with many ancillary materials
had a better conceptual understanding of the dynamic for the instructor such as CD-ROMs, videotapes,
processes occurring in equilibria reactions (Misconcep- laserdiscs, or web site addresses, and these materials
tions 1 and 2). For the past decade or so, chemical also contain computer animations of biology concepts
education researchers have stressed the importance at the particulate level (Miller & Levine 1998; Strauss
of asking students to think about chemistry concepts & Lisowski 1998). Although the use of particulate
at the particulate level (Nurrenbern & Pickering 1987; drawings is being promoted by science education
Gabel, Samuel & Hunn 1987; Sawrey 1990; Pickering researchers, instructors who choose to use them in
1990; Nakhleh 1993) and the evidence suggests that their instruction need to be made aware of the results
when students receive chemistry instruction including of this research and what it can tell them about
particulate drawings, they are better able to answer student learning in the classroom. Educational psy-
conceptual questions that are based on the particulate chology research performed by Mayer and coworkers
nature of matter (Williamson & Abraham 1995; Rus- (Mayer & Gallini 1990; Mayer & Anderson 1991,
sell et al. 1997; Sanger & Greenbowe 1997). These 1992) suggests that instruction using computer anima-
results suggest that instruction including computer tions is most effective when the words and pictures
are presented simultaneously, rather than separated
from one another in time or space. Greenbowe et
al. (1995) reported that in order for students to have
USE THEINTERNET enough time to interpret the particulate drawings
included in computer animations, these animations
TO TEACHBIOLOGY! should be shown successively at least three times
(with narration) to the students. They also reported
that students' abilities to interpret particulate draw-
ings in computer animations greatly improve as their
,B.oWe.b., ......... BioWeb Search: Internet exposure to these drawings and animations increases.
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unfamiliar with particulate drawings, they may misin-
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particulate drawings and computer animations

warrants the possible difficulties associated with macroscopic, microscopic, and symbolic representations
using these drawings and animations. to enhance the teaching and learning of chemical con-
cepts. Journal of Chemical Education, 74, 330-334.
Sanger, M.J. & Greenbowe, T.J. (1997). Students' misconcep-
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