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A Visual and Intuitive Approach to Teaching and Learning the Concept of Thermodynamic Entropy

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Technical Session: Feeling the Heat - Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Daniel Raviv Florida Atlantic University

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Dr. Raviv is a Professor of Computer & Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Florida Atlantic University. In December 2009 he was named Assistant Provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

With more than 30 years of combined experience in the high-tech industry, government and academia Dr. Raviv developed fundamentally different approaches to “out-of-the-box” thinking and a breakthrough methodology known as “Eight Keys to Innovation.” He has been sharing his contributions with professionals in businesses, academia and institutes nationally and internationally. Most recently he was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland (at Mtech, Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute) and at Johns Hopkins University (at the Center for Leadership Education) where he researched and delivered processes for creative & innovative problem solving.

For his unique contributions he received the prestigious Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, the Faculty Talon Award, the University Researcher of the Year AEA Abacus Award, and the President’s Leadership Award. Dr. Raviv has published in the areas of vision-based driverless cars, innovative thinking, and teaching innovatively. He is a co-holder of a Guinness World Record a co-author of five books.

Dr. Daniel Raviv received his Ph.D. degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1987 and M.Sc. and B.Sc. degrees from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in 1982 and 1980, respectively.

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Daniel Ryan Barb Florida Atlantic University

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Daniel Barb is an undergraduate student studying Mechanical Engineering at Florida Atlantic University. He spent six years in the United States Navy working in a nuclear power plant aboard a fast attack submarine.

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Most people have a somewhat intuitive knowledge regarding the interaction and transfer of energy. Despite this, many students struggle with Thermodynamics in classroom settings. The equations and mathematics can be overwhelming and frustrating, in part because it is often hard to visualize thermodynamic interactions. This is especially true for the concept of entropy, which many consider to be one of the toughest thermodynamic principles to comprehend. Furthermore, the equations and mathematics are sometimes disconnected from daily, real-life experiences.

Today’s students have a plethora of distractions available to them. If students feel bored or frustrated with the material, often times they will lose focus and browse the internet looking for more interesting topics. They learn differently, more intuitively, experiencing short attention spans. Therefore, the material and presentation methods should be clear, intuitive and engaging.

This primary focus of this paper is to help students learn and instructors explain the fundamental concept of thermodynamic entropy by utilizing intuitive and example-based approaches. This paper seeks to cut through the volumes worth of material written on the subject in order to boil entropy down into something that is clear and easy to understand. To accomplish this, this paper starts with (1) intuitive examples of spontaneous processes, such as the dilution of tea bags in water, followed by (2) analogies that aid in understanding the significance of entropy as a “ratio,” for example, the effect of an LED at night versus during the day on the overall visibility, (3) explanations of the difference between the macro state and micro state view of entropy, such as watching a movie forward or backwards (for macro explanation) and looking at the motion of molecules (for micro explanation), (4) brain teasers, such as the effect of a working refrigerator in an isolated room, (5) an explanation of the role of statistical mechanics in entropy, and (6) a brief overview of various other notions related to entropy. We relate these examples to the idea of the Carnot cycle and to other quantitative formulas. The point of this approach is to provide students with examples that translate textbook explanations to real life and help in comprehension of the material. We believe that when using these intuitive examples students tend to understand the concept of entropy more clearly.

It should be noted that this paper is a work in progress. In addition, this method of teaching is meant to be supplemental in nature and not to replace existing textbooks or other teaching and learning methodologies. The work in this paper has not yet been shared in a classroom setting. However, we intend to assess effectiveness of this approach in the near future. A similar visual, intuitive, and engaging approach has been conducted and assessed in classroom settings for the topics of Statics (explaining center of gravity), Calculus (explaining integration and explaining derivation by chain, product, and quotient rules), Differential Equations, Control Systems, Digital Signal Processing, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and Computer Algorithms. Based on our previous work, there is reason to believe in the effectiveness of this approach in the field of Thermodynamics as well.

Raviv, D., & Barb, D. R. (2020, June), A Visual and Intuitive Approach to Teaching and Learning the Concept of Thermodynamic Entropy Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34083

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