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The disorder metaphor for entropy: Friend or Foe?
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Didactics)
2017 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Entropy is often introduced by use of the disorder metaphor in thermodynamics, but many weaknesses of the metaphor have been identified [1]. By influence of the disorder metaphor, students tend to focus on spatial configuration with regards to entropy but disregard the role of energy in problem solving [2]. There are also many natural phenomena where an entropy increase comes together with increasing visual disorder, such as the formation of liquid crystals. Due to such identified weaknesses, it has been argued that the disorder metaphor for entropy is more harmful than useful and should be avoided in teaching [1]. Another, alternative perspective is to regard the entropy metaphor as a useful resource for students’ development of an intuitive idea of entropy. From this perspective, the goal of teaching is not to eliminate disorder from students’ conceptualisation of entropy, but help them refine the understanding of when it can be useful and when it does not apply [3]. The purpose of the present study is to investigate whether the disorder metaphor can be useful in the teaching of entropy, and – if that is the case – how its weaknesses can be addressed in the teaching practice. Students’ ideas of entropy were probed through open questionnaire items before and after a university course in thermodynamics [4], and through follow-up interviews with pairs of students one year after the course [5]. The majority of students made use of the disorder metaphor in describing what entropy means, both before and after the course. In addition, they tended to develop a more nuanced, complex view of the concept, by connecting entropy as disorder to other microscopic concepts such as microstates and spreading. In the follow-up interviews, although acknowledging that disorder is not a scientific concept, students still found it useful for getting a qualitative understanding of entropy. In general, every metaphor breaks down at one point, where it is no longer useful. When we introduce metaphors in teaching, we have to bring up explicitly how to interpret the compared domains (in this case disorder and entropy) and how they relate to one another, and what limitations the metaphors have [6]. The disorder metaphor – in combination with other explanatory approaches – can be used to give students an early flavour of what entropy means, so long as we acknowledge its limitations.

  1. F. Lambert (2002) J. Chem. Ed. 78 187.
  2. C. Brosseau & J. Viard (1992) Ensen. Cienc. 10 13.
  3. B. D. Geller et al (2014) Am. J. Phys. 82 394.
  4. J. Haglund et al (2015) Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 16 537.
  5. J. Haglund et al (2016) Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 17 489.
  6. R. Duit (1991) Sci. Ed. 75 649.
Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2017.
Keywords [en]
entropy; disorder; metaphor
National Category
Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-326836OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-326836DiVA, id: diva2:1128976
Conference
GIREP-ICPE-EPEC 2017, 3-7 July, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland
Available from: 2017-07-31 Created: 2017-07-31 Last updated: 2017-08-03Bibliographically approved

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CiteExportLink to record
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