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Misconceptions can be formed in many ways. In some cases, incorrect information is shared and repsesated, creating common misconceptions. When ideas are complex or abstract, people often also create their own explanations, which may be partially correct or incrorect.


The following lists of common misconceptions are aligned to topics covered in each of the Exploring Our Fluid Earth modules.

Module 0 Practices of Scientists

  • Science is a static body of knowledge that does not change
  • Scientists are mostly old men in white coats with crazy hair.
  • Scientists all work in the same way because there is only one way to do science. 
  • The scientific process is linear and uni-directional.
  • Hypotheses cannot change.
  • Only (professional) scientists can do science. 
  • If your hypothesis is not supported, your investigation has failed.
  • Science is only done in a laboratory. 
  • Accepted scientific explanations do not change over time. 
  • If scientists disagree, or the results of experiments show conflicting results, then the scientific findings are not useful.
  • TV shows and movies accurately show how science is done (e.g. CSI, The Big Bang).

Module 1 Physical

General Misconceptions
  • Big things are more dense, small things are less dense. 
  • Big/heavy things sink, whereas small/light things float.
  • Objects with air inside will always float.
Aquatic Misconceptions
  • Substances (e.g. salt/sugar) dissolved in water do not affect the overall weight. 
  • Objects float because the body of water is large (e.g. the ocean or the experimental container).
  • Density does not cause currents; only waves cause currents. 
  • Water is water. Water in the ocean has the same properties everywhere.
  • Confusion between density, buoyancy, and gravity. 
  • The phases of the moon are caused by shadows of the earth, sun, or clouds. 
  • There is a side of the moon that is always dark.
  • The moon is only visible at night. 
  • The moon emits its own light, or the moon is very reflective.
  • The moon does not have gravity.
  • If the earth had no moon, there would be no tides.
  • The moon does not rotate.
  • Confusion between eclipses and moon phases
Other Physical Aquatic Science Misconceptions
  • There are many disconnected oceans.
  • Water in the ocean “stays in one place”. 
  • Water in the ocean moves up and down with waves and tides, but it doesn’t move long distances across oceans.
  • Waves cause currents.
  • Understanding physics and chemistry are not important to ocean biology.
  • The coast and coastlines are static and do not change over time.
  • The ocean is same depth everywhere.
  • Islands float.
  • Sand is made of salt.

Module 2 Chemical

  • (Compounds v. Mixtures) Compounds are mixtures of elements. Compounds and mixtures are the same. 
  • (Elements v. Compounds) Elements are made up of single atoms. Compounds are made up of molecules
  • (Molecules v. Compounds) Molecules and compounds are the same. 
  • Confusion as to how to categorize pure substances.
  • Gases have no mass.
  • Matter can be created and destroyed.
  • Particles are mini-versions of the substances they comprise and possess the same properties.
  • Free electrons flow through solution.
  • Particles are not conserved in chemical or physical changes.
  • Different forms or phases of the same substances are chemically different.
  • A change of state is a chemical change.
  • Cold causes hydrogen and oxygen to combine to form water.
  • Heat causes water to break up into hydrogen and oxygen, i.e., water is destroyed when it evaporates.
Water Properties
Water properties and Hydrogen-bonding
  • Adhesion is the same as cohesion.
  • Water cannot flow uphill/against gravity.
  • Water has a “skin” – the surface of water has a different composition than the center.
  • Hydrogen bonds are bonds between water molecules.
  • All bonds involve equal sharing of electron pairs
Other Bonding
  • There are no bonds in elementary substances, e.g., in a piece of pure gold.
  • Only asymmetrical molecules can be polar.
  • (Dissociation v. dissolution) All substances that dissolve are sources of ions in solution.
  • Electricity flows through hollow wires and is used up by lights or appliances.
  • Appliances or lights can still work in incomplete electrical circuits.
Other Chemical Aquatic Science Misconceptions
  • Table salt plus water is the same as ocean water.
  • Adding solute to water changes the volume
  • Human impacts on Earth’s atmosphere have no effect on the ocean.
  • Heat and cold are substances or entities, and different from one another.
  • Air pressure increases with an increase in altitude.
  • Gases cannot dissolve in liquids.
  • Energy is not conserved.
  • A substance that undergoes combustion ceases to exist, having been converted into heat and energy (students may classify heat as a unique entity). (Note: Students with this belief do not recognize that when 100 pounds of gasoline are consumed, 100 pounds of gases are formed.)

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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.