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This study offers a psychological role that external representations can play in the process of refining intuitive ideas into scientific knowledge. An argument for this role is presented first through historical analysis of Galileo's ramp experiments and then through documentation of an innovative sixth-grade classroom activity. In both of these cases, engagement with and refinement of external representations of motion were central supports to conceptual and empirical meaning making. An instructional approach that uses representation activities to support student development of their own conceptual and empirical approaches to a phenomenon stands in contrast to the prevailing trend in science curricula, which focuses exclusively on content acquisition.