Learning electricity with NIELS: Thinking with electrons and thinking in levels

Pratim Sengupta*, Uri Wilensky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

101 Scopus citations


Electricity is regarded as one of the most challenging topics for students of all ages. Several researchers have suggested that naïve misconceptions about electricity stem from a deep incommensurability (Slotta and Chi 2006; Chi 2005) or incompatibility (Chi et al. 1994) between naïve and expert knowledge structures. In this paper we argue that adopting an emergent levels-based perspective as proposed by Wilensky and Resnick (1999), allows us to reconceive commonly noted misconceptions in electricity as behavioral evidences of "slippage between levels," i.e., these misconceptions appear when otherwise productive knowledge elements are sometimes activated inappropriately due to certain macro-level phenomenological cues only. We then introduce NIELS (NetLogo Investigations In Electromagnetism), a curriculum of emergent multi-agent-based computational models. NIELS models represent phenomena such as electric current and resistance as emergent from simple, body-syntonic interactions between electrons and other charges in a circuit. We discuss results from a pilot implementation of NIELS in an undergraduate physics course, that highlight the ability of an emergent levels-based approach to provide students with a deep, expert-like understanding of the relevant phenomena by bootstrapping, rather than discarding their existing repertoire of intuitive knowledge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-50
Number of pages30
JournalInternational Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2009


  • Cognition
  • Complex systems
  • Design
  • Education
  • Electric current
  • Electricity
  • Electrostatics
  • Knowledge representation
  • Learning
  • Learning sciences
  • Multi-agent based models
  • NetLogo
  • NetLogo investigations in electromagnetism
  • Ohm's Law
  • Physics
  • Resistance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Engineering(all)
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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