Hot, heat, temperature and thermodynamics confusion

By Marcus Wilson 16/12/2010 5

Consider the following perfectly reasonable sentences:

"It’s hot outside"

"The oven is heating up"

"Insulation helps keep a house warm"

Here we have physics words and concepts being used in everyday English in ways that are rather loose from a physics point of view. Does the conventional English use of words such as ‘heat’, ‘temperature’, ‘insulate’, etc confuse students when they come to learn thermodynamics? For example, even a physicist would say "it’s hot today", when  he knows what he actually means is "the temperature is high today". In thermodynamics, heat and temperature are very precise concepts, and are not interchangeable, as they often are in English.

Anyway, a study of confusion amongst students caused by conventional English usage of thermodynamics words was the subject of Helen Georgiou’s short talk last week at the Australian Institute of Physics congress. Brief conclusion: Yes, there is confusion, and often students aren’t aware of where it’s coming from.

5 Responses to “Hot, heat, temperature and thermodynamics confusion”

  • I find the same things with mass and weight. Students get super confused between the two when talking about forces and energy etc.

  • I think you should use gender neutral pronouns, particularly given your earlier post ‘Something to ponder if you’re a girl interested in science’.

  • Oh I just thought of another one as I’m planning my courses for next year. I find it takes a long time for students to correctly use the terms – “air”, “gas”, and “oxygen” etc. Similar terms but not exactly interchangeable.

  • Yes, there are probably lots of groups of physics words that fall into this category. Have you any good ideas about getting students to appreciate the physics meanings?

  • Not really any ideas I’m afraid, I’ve only been teaching a year (Chemistry and Junior Science at college). It’s definitely something worth spending time on in class and confronting it rather than hoping it doesn’t happen e.g. I’d quite often say “and this is an example of x but not y because…”. I remember skimming a paper about common misconceptions that can build up as students learn about science. I ought to dig that up again and have a more thorough read.

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