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American Journal Of Physics


Free energy is a non-conserved quantity that is of fundamental importance in biochemistry and sociopolitical discourse, but one that does not often get discussed in introductory physics classrooms. While many canonical representations of energy that are encountered in introductory physics (energy bar charts, energy pie charts, etc.) foster ideas about energy that are productive for learners in a wide range of contexts, they have limited utility in contexts where free energy is an important consideration. In this study, we describe how learners who encounter canonical representations of energy in introductory physics develop a deep conviction that energy is conserved, and must then reconcile that idea with the fact that the amount of useful energy in the world is continually diminishing. We identify the most prominent ideas about free energy that are expressed by two different populations of learners—undergraduate Introductory Physics for Life Science (IPLS) students and K-12 teachers in a professional development seminar—and describe how those ideas reflect the representations of energy with which they are most familiar. Finally, we articulate features that would be required of new representations that might better prepare learners for considering the usefulness of energy. We suggest that such representations would make the study of energy across disciplines more coherent and make introductory physics more relevant to current sociopolitical energy needs.


This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author(s) and AIP Publishing. This article appeared in Benjamin D. Geller, Abigail R. Daane; Making energy relevant: The role of free energy in introductory physics. Am. J. Phys. 1 July 2019; 87 (7): 558–568.

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