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Ontology roundup

October 9, 2012

I read a handful of papers on ontology in varying levels of detail trying to get a handle on an IRISE video I wanted to understand. Here’s a quick run down of some ontology papers.

Gupta, Hammer & Redish (2010), The case for dynamic models of learners’ ontologies in physics, J. Learning Sci. 19, 285. (Also Slotta’s response and their response to Slotta.)

Nice introduction to ontology. Ontologies are the basic categories of existence: substance, event, process are all different ontologies that one might use classify a concept. What ontology a concept belongs to will then affect what attributes that concept can possess. For example, an event has a temporal duration but no mass. Chi & Slotta had previously argued that each conception a person learns belongs to a single ontology and that many misconceptions have their origins in concepts which “should” be processes (more specifically emerging or non-directed processes) being classified as substances by learners. Gupta et al. challenge this view with examples of novices and experts using phrases aligned with different ontologies for the same concept. Gupta et al. promote more of a resources view of ontologies where a person shifts a concept from one ontology to another depending on context.

Slotta responded that Chi & Slotta believe that people can constructed multiple conceptions for the same “idea” each aligned with a different ontology. Thus each conception has a single, fixed ontology but the same concept could be represented by multiple conceptions. Slotta also mentions a computer training module designed to familiarize students with the emergent process ontology prior to introducing students to the physics concept (current or heat, I can’t remember). Students who received the ontology training outperformed students who only received the physics training.

Hammer et al. responded to Slotta that while Chi’s view of parallel ontologies is similar to their view of flexible ontologies they are not identical. Hammer notes that their paper offers examples of ontological blending where a concept is conceived of as something that is not strictly matter and not strict process. Hammer et al. thus suggest that ontological categories themselves are flexible and can be blended together as needed.

Scherr, Close, McKagan & Vokos (2012), Representing a substance ontology for energy, accepted to PRST-PER.

The Energy Project uses a quasi-substance metaphor for energy in which energy is conceived of as a “thing” that resides within an object, can be tracked and accounted for, and can transfer from one object to another. (Brief mention of how they allow energy to be located in the field for things like gravitational energy. This is significantly different than being located in an object and I would like to see more discussion about how the location part of the metaphor is extended to include fields and how this extension is received by the learners.) This ontology is a quasi-substance because energy is not conceived of as having mass or taking up space – two attributes commonly associated with the substance ontology. Paper discusses how the quasi-substance metaphor facilitates emphasis on energy tracking and energy conservation – two of the primary instructional goals for The Energy Project. Some discussion of how various representations (bar charts, PET diagrams, etc.) do or do not support the quasi-substance metaphor.

Brewe (2011), Energy as a substancelike quantity that flows: Theoretical considerations and pedagogical consequences, PRST-PER 7 020106.

Similar to the previous paper. Brewe discusses the pros and cons of using a quasi-substance metaphor for energy and looks at how different representations do or do not align with this metaphor. Talks about system schema representation for defining your system and defining interactions within or across system boundaries. This is something I want to look at more for Hands-on-Science. This paper also outlines the new mechanics & E&M curriculum at FIU. Brewe talks about when different representations are introduced in the curriculum and how their introduction facilitates new models and new modes of reasoning.

Falk, Herrmann and Schmid (1983), Energy forms or energy carriers?, Am. J. Phys. 51, 1074.

This was referenced in the Brewe paper as arguing for replacing the idea of energy forms in favor of simply having different methods of storing energy. They talk about how energy flow is always accompanied by a flow of some substance-like quantity (momenum, charge, chemical potential etc.) What we think of as different forms of energy might more precisely and more accurately be thought of as energy flowing with different carriers (the substance-like quantity that flows with the energy). This idea is interesting but confusing. I need to read this paper a few more times before I really “get it”.

Wittmann, Steinberg & Redish (1999), Making sense of how students make sense of mechanical waves, The Physics Teacher 37, 15.

Analyzes results from quizzes and interviews in an introductory class dealing with waves on a string. Finds evidence that many students difficulties can be attributed to trying (unproductively) to apply reasoning about objects to waves. They view the students’ difficulties as being partly due to mental models which borrow some attributes from the wrong ontological category (objects rather than events).

Wittmann (2002), The object coordination class applied to wave pulses: Analyzing student reasoning in wave physics, Int. J. Sci. Ed. 24, 97.

An elaboration on the previous paper using the idea of coordination class introduced by diSessa and Sherin. A coordination class is one type of “concept” in which a net of simple pieces of information are “chosen and linked together”. A coordination class consists of a “causal net” which forms the links between different reasoning resources and a “readout strategy” which allows the subject to interpret observations in terms of reasoning primitives. For waves, a readout strategy might involve thinking of the wave as a single object or it might involve thinking of the wave as a collection of individual points. These strategies could lead to different conclusions when thinking about superposition of two waves (point-by-point superposition [correct] or superposition at the peaks only [incorrect]). Wittmann’s discussion of students’ reasoning seems clear but how the coordination class factors into the analysis is still somewhat confusing to me. I need to read the diSessa and Sherin paper and then maybe read this paper again.

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