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Quantification in Empirical Activity

Tracing Children’s Interests and Ideas


Changing where, when, and how objects are studied is central to lab-based science (Knorr Cetina, 1999). Science involves changing the scale of objects—particularly scales of size, time, and intensity—from what is experienced in the world. Similar to investigations conducted in science laboratories, classroom investigations involve re-representing and re-scaling entities, manipulating them, and observing effects in new locations and timescales. However, this aspect of investigation is under-studied and under-utilized as a resource for learning. We argue that, from elementary school, children can experience quantification, or identifying, developing, and working with variables, as consequential and can take up differences in representation and scale in empirical investigations as opportunities for sense-making and conceptual progress. We describe two instantiations of an investigation into heating and cooling, showing that 7- and 8-year-old students oriented to gaps and ambiguities related to temperature and that the redesign supported children and teachers to take up temperature for productive sense-making and conceptual progress. We examine opportunities for quantification across the heating and cooling investigation and a second investigation into landforms. This work has implications for supporting quantification in science activity in the early grades and using empirical investigations as opportunities for sense-making.

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  1. All teachers’ and children’s names are pseudonyms.

  2. Following Jin et al. (2019), we use these terms interchangeably.


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The heating and cooling investigation described here was designed and refined in partnership with Sarah Arnold, Colleen Bazinet, Maureen Cronin, Diana Garity, Griselda George, Pat O’Brien, Nora Studley, Dolores Theolien, and Lauren Woldemariam. The landforms investigation was developed in partnership with Cate Lacroix, Mary McCusker, Deborah Quinn, Melissa Richard, Traci Post, and Andrea Wells. The authors thank Rich Lehrer, Chris Georgen, and the three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions, which substantially improved the paper.


Funding is from the National Science Foundation, Grant 1749324.

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Correspondence to Eve Manz.

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Manz, E., Beckert, B. Quantification in Empirical Activity. Sci & Educ (2021).

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  • Empirical investigation
  • Quantification
  • Scale
  • Elementary school science