New Perspectives in Science Education

Edition 13

Accepted Abstracts

The Role of Mathematics in Quantum Physics for High School Students: a Case Study

Laura Branchetti, University of Parma (Italy)

Giulia Tasquier, Alma Mater Studiorum - University of Bologna (Italy)


Within the research literature in STEM education, documented difficulties concern the epistemological issues arisen by the relationship between the technical aspects of mathematical models and the empirical reality, like: what does the model represent (real objects, abstract concepts)? Where and how do the mathematical outputs of the model relate to reality? The use of mathematical models in science education is often considered an obstacle because of their abstractness, compared with the concrete dimension of science that is expected to enhance students’ motivation. The transition from classical to quantum physics makes this aspect more problematic because of the need to give up familiar images or spacetime descriptions. These problems encouraged the Bologna’s Physics education group to design a teaching/learning path on quantum physics, according to some guiding principles (multidimensionality, multiperspectiveness, longitudinality) that problematize the epistemological and metacognitive issues pointed out by the mathematical models used in quantum physics. One of the main goals of the teaching path was to promote in the students a process of appropriation a la Bakhtin, through which students are encouraged to attribute personal meanings to scientific discourses. This path was experimented with high school students. Data were collected through individual semi-structured interviews. In this paper, we focus on a case study built on the analysis of the scientific discourse of a student, whose position towards mathematics was of total trust; she considered mathematics the main tool to reach the “truth of Nature” and posed it at the basis of her personal appropriation process. The analysis of the student’s discourse is based on Habermas's rationality construct, used to show the multiplicity of epistemic rationalities that lie behind her discourse. It emerged the prevalence of the mathematical rationality: the mathematical formalism and assumptions are the keys for connecting models and reality and validating the empirical facts; she feels the need of mathematics to go beyond the misleading perceptions. In the paper we will present the main features of the path as well as a detailed analysis of the case study to show both the productiveness of this form of rationality and its limits in appropriating quantum physics.

KeywordsHigh-school students; STEM education; Quantum Physics; Appropriation; Epistemic rationality;


[1] Levrini, O., Fantini, P. (2013). Encountering productive forms of complexity in learning modern physics. Sci.&Ed., 22(8), 1895–1910.
[2] Malgieri, M., Branchetti, L., De Ambrosis, A., Levrini, O., Tasquier, G. (2017). Students’ idiosyncratic voices and the learning of quantum physics in secondary school: a case study of Appropriation. Paper presented at ESERA Conference, 21-25 August, Dublin.
[3] Levrini, O., Fantini, P., Pecori, B., Tasquier, G., & Levin, M. (2014). Defining and operationalizing ‘appropriation’ for science learning. JLS, 24 (1), 93-136.
[4] Barelli, E., Branchetti, B., Tasquier, G., Albertazzi, L., Levrini, O. (2018). Science of Complex Systems and Citizenship Skills: a Pilot Study with Adult Citizens. Paper accepted in EURASIA Journal of STEM Education.
[5] Morselli, F. & Boero, P. (2009). Habermas' construct of rational behavior as a comprehensive frame for research on the teaching and learning of proof. Proceedings of the ICMI Study 19 Conference: Proof and proving in mathematics education, 2, 100-105.
[6] Branchetti, L., Cattabriga, A. & Levrini, O. (2018). Training secondary school teachers to deal with interdisciplinarity between physics and mathematics: the case of the black body model. Submitted to Sci.&Ed.
[7] Branchetti, L., Morselli, F. (2017). The interplay of identity and rationality in a mathematical activity. Accepted for publication in the proceedings of ICME-13, Hamburg, July 2016. 
[8] Tasquier, G., Levrini, O., Dillon, J.  (2016). Exploring Students’ Epistemological Knowledge of Models and Modelling in Science: Results from a Teaching/Learning Experience on Climate Change. IJSE, 38 (4), 539-563.


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