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Negative Energy: Why Interdisciplinary Physics Requires Multiple Ontologies Documents

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Negative Energy: Why Interdisciplinary Physics Requires Multiple Ontologies 

written by Benjamin W. Dreyfus, Benjamin D. Geller, Julia Gouvea, Vashti Sawtelle, Chandra Turpen, and Edward F. Redish

Much recent work in physics education research has focused on ontological metaphors for energy, particularly the substance ontology and its pedagogical affordances. The concept of negative energy problematizes the substance ontology for energy, but in many instructional settings, the specific difficulties around negative energy are outweighed by the general advantages of the substance ontology. However, we claim that our interdisciplinary setting (a physics class that builds deep connections to biology and chemistry) leads to a different set of considerations and conclusions. In a course designed to draw interdisciplinary connections, the centrality of chemical bond energy in biology necessitates foregrounding negative energy from the beginning. We argue that the emphasis on negative energy requires a combination of substance and location ontologies. The location ontology enables energies both "above" and "below" zero. We present preliminary student data that illustrate difficulties in reasoning about negative energy, and the affordances of the location metaphor.

Published February 1, 2014
Last Modified January 31, 2014

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