The nature of energy is not typically an explicit topic of physics instruction. Nonetheless, verbal and graphical representations of energy articulate models in which energy is conceptualized as a quasimaterial substance, a stimulus, or a vertical location. We argue that a substance ontology for energy is particularly productive in developing understanding of energy transfers and transformations. We analyze classic representations of energy—bar charts, pie charts, and others—to determine the energy ontologies that are implicit in those representations, and thus their affordances for energy learning. We find that while existing representations partially support a substance ontology for energy and thus the learning goal of energy conservation, they have limited utility for tracking the flow of energy among objects.
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