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21 St Century Thermodynamics

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Emerging Trends in Engineering Education Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.5.1 - 11.5.13



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Paper Authors

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Robert Balmer Union College


Lance Spallholz Union College

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Lance Spallholz is an Instructor in Computer Science and the Director of Engineering and Computer Science Computing Facilities at Union College.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract



The methodology of teaching engineering thermodynamics has not changed significantly since the late 19th century. The first classic text in this field was published in 1859 by William Rankine1, and was in print for over 50 years. The late 19th century saw smaller, more focused pragmatic thermodynamics texts with expanding property tables as new data became available. The early 20th century saw the pragmatic textbook approaches of Goodenough2, Faires3, Keenan4, etc., and by the mid 20th century Gordon Van Wylen5 produced his now classic thermodynamics text. While the words and equations have changed somewhat over the past 150 years, the basic textbook format and classroom teaching methodology have remained essentially unchanged. Regardless of the relatively simple vector-less energy and entropy balance nature of thermodynamics, there are two significant barriers for students grappling with this subject – mastering the Greek and Latin language based subject terminology, and the use of the ever expanding cadre of complex property tables printed at the back of the textbook.

This paper describes two new techniques that were developed to overcome these barriers. The first uses a custom PHP web based application in the format of a popular TV quiz show “Jeopardy” to motivate the understanding of thermodynamic terminology. Because it is web based, the application could be used by students alone or in small study groups as part of their review process. The second utilizes common PDA technology to provide instant electronic access to thermodynamics property tables. Student surveys suggest these teaching techniques enhanced learning of this often baffling subject, and they could be beneficial in enhancing other courses as well.


Why is it so difficult to initiate change in engineering education? Is it because educators are so cloistered and uninterested in the outside world? Is it because the university faculty reward system only recognizes those who obtain research grants? Or is it because of the historical nature of the engineering education profession? We believe it is primarily the latter.

From the beginning of human history the design and construction of all public infrastructures were done by organized groups of “military” engineers under the control of a local monarch. Surprisingly, this didn’t change until relatively recently. It was not until 1768 that John Smeaton (1724-1792) wished to identify a new profession that was distinct from that of the military engineers. He was the first to call himself a “civilian engineer,” a title that soon became contracted to “civil engineer.” In 1771, Smeaton started the British Institute of Civil Engineers, which was the world’s first professional engineering society6.

In higher education engineering was initially regarded as too utilitarian and not a respectable college subject. It was often taught by apprenticeship, as were other trades of the times. Established colleges focused on the liberal arts, and had little respect for or interest in teaching applied science or any “practical art” such as engineering. When applied science was finally included in college studies, admission standards for engineering were generally lower and

Balmer, R., & Spallholz, L. (2006, June), 21 St Century Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--107

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