Intuitive Ontologies for Energy in Physics

R. E. Scherr, H. G. Close, and S. B. McKagan, "Intuitive Ontologies for Energy in Physics," C. Singh, M. Sabella, and Engelhardt (Eds.), AIP Conf. Proc. (2011 Physics Education Research Conference)


The nature of energy is not typically an explicit topic of physics instruction. Nonetheless, participants in physics courses that involve energy are frequently saying what kind of thing they think energy is, both verbally and nonverbally. Physics textbooks also provide discourse suggesting the nature of energy as conceptualized by disciplinary experts. The premise of an embodied cognition theoretical perspective is that we understand the kinds of things that may exist in the world (ontology) in terms of sensorimotor experiences such as object permanence and movement. We offer examples of intuitive ontologies for energy that we have observed in classroom contexts and physics texts, including energy as a quasi-material substance; as a stimulus to action; and as a vertical location. Each of the intuitive ontologies we observe has features that contribute to a valid understanding of energy. The quasi-material substance metaphor best supports understanding energy as a conserved quantity.