Research in Science Education

, Volume 43, Issue 5, pp 2137–2152 | Cite as

Young Children’s Thinking About Decomposition: Early Modeling Entrees to Complex Ideas in Science

  • Isi Ero-TolliverEmail author
  • Deborah Lucas
  • Leona Schauble


This study was part of a multi-year project on the development of elementary students’ modeling approaches to understanding the life sciences. Twenty-three first grade students conducted a series of coordinated observations and investigations on decomposition, a topic that is rarely addressed in the early grades. The instruction included in-class observations of different types of soil and soil profiling, visits to the school’s compost bin, structured observations of decaying organic matter of various kinds, study of organisms that live in the soil, and models of environmental conditions that affect rates of decomposition. Both before and after instruction, students completed a written performance assessment that asked them to reason about the process of decomposition. Additional information was gathered through one-on-one interviews with six focus students who represented variability of performance across the class. During instruction, researchers collected video of classroom activity, student science journal entries, and charts and illustrations produced by the teacher. After instruction, the first-grade students showed a more nuanced understanding of the composition and variability of soils, the role of visible organisms in decomposition, and environmental factors that influence rates of decomposition. Through a variety of representational devices, including drawings, narrative records, and physical models, students came to regard decomposition as a process, rather than simply as an end state that does not require explanation.


Decomposition Decomposers Modeling Organisms Investigation Compost Matter 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0628253. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Isi Ero-Tolliver
    • 1
    Email author
  • Deborah Lucas
    • 1
  • Leona Schauble
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Teaching and Learning, Vanderbilt UniversityVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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