Interdisciplinary Reasoning about Energy in an Introductory Physics Course for the Life Sciences

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Energy is a unifying concept that cuts across physics, chemistry, and biology. However, students who study all three disciplines can end up with a fragmented understanding of energy. This dissertation sits at the intersection of two active areas of current research: the teaching and learning of energy, and interdisciplinary science education (particularly the intersection of physics and biology).

The context for this research is an introductory physics course for undergraduate life sciences majors that is reformed to build stronger interdisciplinary connections between physics, biology, and chemistry. An approach to energy that incorporates chemical bonds and chemical reactions is better equipped to meet the needs of life sciences students than a traditional introductory physics approach that focuses primarily on mechanical energy, and so we present a curricular thread for chemical energy in the physics course.

Our first set of case studies examines student reasoning about ATP hydrolysis, a biochemically significant reaction that powers various processes in the cell. We observe students expressing both that an energy input is required to break a chemical bond (which they associate with physics) and that energy is released when the phosphate bond is broken in ATP (which they associate with biology). We use these case studies to articulate a model of interdisciplinary reconciliation: building coherent connections between concepts from different disciplines while understanding each concept in its own disciplinary context and justifying the modeling choices in deciding when to use each disciplinary model.

Our second study looks at ontological metaphors for energy: metaphors about what kind of thing energy is. Two ontological metaphors for energy that have previously been documented include energy as a substance and energy as a location. We argue for the use of negative energy in modeling chemical energy in an interdisciplinary context, and for the use of a blended substance/location ontology in reasoning about negative energy. Our data show students and experts using the blended ontology productively when the two ontologies are combined in a coherent structure, as well as students getting confused when the ontologies are not coherently combined.