Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Menon, D., & Lankford, D. M. (2016). Making sense of sound: Fourth graders use physical and technological models to illustrate and explain the nature and characteristics of sound. Science and Children, 54(4), 41-47.


From the earliest days of their lives, children are exposed to all kinds of sound, from soft, comforting voices to the frightening rumble of thunder. Consequently, children develop their own naïve explanations largely based upon their experiences with phenomena encountered every day (Driver et al. 1994). When new information does not support existing conceptions, explanations are refashioned to agree with prior experiences, often resulting in misconceptions (Wesson 2001). Science education literature identifies multiple misconceptions related to sound commonly held by elementary students, including: Sound can only travel through air and not through solids and liquids; sound can travel through a vacuum, such as space; sound can be produced without using any materials; and hitting an object harder changes the pitch of the sound produced (Stepans 2006). Inquiry-based activities challenge students to question their own conceptions and build new conceptual understanding in light of new evidence. To that end, we designed a 5E (Bybee 1997) inquiry-based lesson to engage fourth graders in an exploration of sound, focusing specifically on sound as a mechanical wave.

Performance expectations from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) specifically indicate that students should be engaged in scientific practices such as modeling to support learning. Drawing upon NGSS performance expectation 4-PS4-1, we used physical and technological models to (1) demonstrate that sound is a form of energy associated with vibration of matter and can cause other objects to move and (2) describe sound wave patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength (NGSS Lead States 2013). The physical and technological models described could be further extended to illustrate energy transfer through sound (4-PS3-2).