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A Unified Approach to Explain Thermo-Fluid Science Concepts Using Interactive Molecular-Level Simulations

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session


Tagged Division

Computing & Information Technology

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.123.1 - 24.123.13



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Paper Authors

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Jeremy Webb Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Boise State University


Inanc Senocak Boise State University

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Inanc Senocak is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Boise State University. He received his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey in 1998, and his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Florida,Gainesville in 2002. After his graduation, he held postdoctoral positions at the Center for Turbulence Research (jointly operated by NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University) and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked on large eddy simulation of atmospheric boundary layer flows and source inversion of atmospheric dispersion events, respectively. His research interests include computational fluid dynamics (CFD), wind energy forecasting, parallel computing with GPUs, cavitation and multiphase flows, turbulence modeling, atmospheric transport and dispersion, and inverse problems.

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Dazhi Yang Boise State University

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Dazhi Yang is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Technology Department at Boise State University. Prior to coming to Boise State, she was a postdoctoral researcher and instructional designer in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her current research focuses on instructional strategies and online course design techniques for STEM subject areas, especially engineering and science; instructional strategies for teaching difficult and complex science and engineering concepts with the assistance of technology; and teacher education and professional development. Due to her interest and background in teacher education, Dr. Yang designed, developed and coordinated the K-12 Online Teaching Endorsement Program at Boise State. Dr. Yang was a featured researcher of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) International Convention and the Young Researcher Award recipient from the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Recently she also received the Effective Practice Award (in online and eLearning) from the Sloan-Consortium.

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Interactive Molecular-level Descriptions in Engineering Educational SimulationsA review of various college textbooks in engineering revealed a mixed trend towardsincluding molecular level descriptions to explain fundamental concepts and processes inthermal and fluid sciences at the introductory level. Depending on the fundamentalconcept, a macroscopic level of description is oftentimes favored in most textbooks. Thismixed trend can partially be explained by the difficulty of explaining molecular actionthrough static images in a textbook. However, recent educational research shows thatstudent learning is enhanced when concepts are described at the molecular level as anemergent process. We hypothesize that carefully designed interactive animations can beused to reinforce fundamental concepts at the microscopic level.The objective of this study was to create interactive educational simulations at themolecular level in order to illustrate fundamental concepts in thermal and fluid sciences.Our future goal is to use these simulations to test our hypothesis on enhanced studentlearning. The simulations can provide students a more complete understanding ofdynamic phenomena at the molecular level that are not readily observable. The conceptsand phenomena chosen for in this study are temperature, pressure, viscosity, friction influid, and heat transfer through conduction, convection, and thermal radiation.We use the Mathematica software and some existing simulations within the WolframDemonstrations Project to create interactive animations for our purposes. The animationsadopt major simplifications to the underlying theory to enable interactivity whileconveying the fundamentals. Students can manipulate the variables of the physicalprocesses to illustrate what effects these variables have on the system as a whole.We consider the molecular motion of matter in three phases to illustrate temperatureconcept. The animation allows students to select the phase of matter, and vary thetemperature of the matter to observe the associated response in molecular motion in eachphase separately.A majority of undergraduate textbooks in physics, fluid mechanics and thermodynamicsdescribe fluid pressure as the normal force acting on a unit surface, followed by anexplanation of how fluid pressure varies with depth. However, this basic description doesnot explain pressure in the context of an ideal gas, and it is connection to temperature atthe molecular level. To address this issue, we developed an animation where pressure isillustrated by molecules bombarding the walls of a piston cylinder device. The pistonmoves freely and its position rises during collisions with the gas molecules. Students areable to vary temperature of the system or compress the piston to investigate the responseon pressureViscosity and fluid friction is demonstrated with two simulations that are based onCouette flow. The viscosity simulation allows students to change the mass and size ofmolecules to observe the effects on fluid flow. The fluid friction simulation allowsstudent to vary the velocity profile of the flow. When molecules collide, their colorchanges briefly to highlight the frequency of collisions and therefore the shear stress.The conduction simulation allows student to vary the temperature at one side of a solid toshow how energy is conducted through a solid. The convection simulation shows fluidmolecules removing energy from solid molecules as students vary the wind speed. Theradiation simulation depicts a water molecule absorbing, reflecting, or being transparentto different wavelengths of radiation.The simulations are designed as part of a research project funded by the NSF. The projecttests the idea that student learning is enhanced if certain engineering concepts andprocesses are taught at the molecular level. The simulations will be freely available uponrequest.

Webb, J., & Senocak, I., & Yang, D. (2014, June), A Unified Approach to Explain Thermo-Fluid Science Concepts Using Interactive Molecular-Level Simulations Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20015

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