Mental Models of Proteins and Amino Acids Observed in Students in Higher Education

M. F Silva, N. R.S. Bossolan


Molecular Biology and Biotechnology are part of the curriculum of basic education and are present in everyday life of students in situations that involve their thinking and  decision  making.  The  explanations  of  some  phenomena  and  processes related  to  these  themes  are  almost  always  in  atomic  and  molecular  level, described and explained with scientific models or through representations. In light of  the  Theory  of  Mental  Models  of  Johnson-Laird  some  people  reason  with images,  using  them  in  their  models,  while  others  find  it  difficult  to  infer  the  three dimensional  structure  from  two-dimensional  figures,  such  as  those  used  in textbooks or projected on screens. In this context it is proposed to raise the mental models and/or representations that students in higher education have on proteins and amino acids. For this purpose, we interviewed thirteen students, four from the course  of  Licenciatura  em  Ciências  Exatas  and  nine  from  Bacharelado  em Ciências Físicas e Biomoleculares (USP). Three basic types of mental models of proteins  have  been  detected:  the  two-dimensional  (15%),  the  three-dimensional (38.5%) and a transition between these two types (38.5%). With respect to amino acids, the following types of models were identified: the two-dimensional (38.5%), the three-dimensional (8%) and the atomic (23%). These data show the restricted way that situations of teaching and learning on this topic have been conducted in higher  education  and  point  to  the  use  of  teaching  methods  and  educational resources  that  allow  three-dimensional  visualization  of  these  organic  molecules, such as the use of tactile models, for understanding of these concepts.


molecular biology, mental models, proteins, amino acids, tactile models.

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