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Applying Knowledge from Educational Psychology and Cognitive Science to a First Course in Thermodynamics

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Outstanding Contributions: Mechanical Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.219.1 - 22.219.20

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Paper Authors


Stephen R. Turns Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Stephen R. Turns, Professor of mechanical engineering, joined the faculty of The Pennsylvania State University in 1979. His research interests include combustion-generated air pollution, other combustion-related topics, and engineering education pedagogy. He is the author of three student-centered textbooks in combustion and thermal-sciences. He is a Fellow of the ASME and was the recipient of ASEE's Mechanical Engineering Division Ralph Coats Roe Award in 2009.

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Peggy Noel Van Meter Pennsyvlania State University

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Dr. Van Meter is an Association Professor in the Educational Psychology program at the Pennsylvania State University. She teaches graduate courses on Learning Theory as well as Concept Learning and Problem Solving. Her program of research focuses on students' learning and problem solving with tasks that involve multiple nonverbal representations and text. She has recently collaborated with faculty members in Engineering on the development of an intervention to support students' problem solving in statics.

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RECONSTRUCTING A THERMODYNAMICS COURSE TO BE CONSISTENT WITH WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT LEARNING ABSTRACTA common complaint of engineering educators is that students after completing a prerequisitecourse fail to retain or transfer the ideas to a subsequent course in the curriculum. Educationalpsychology research in science and related fields shows that novice learners have theirknowledge stored in pieces, whereas experts have their knowledge stored in hierarchicalstructures that allow for easy retrieval and application to familiar and to unfamiliar problems [1,2, and others]. Most engineering subjects are based on a relatively few big-picture underlyingconcepts. However, one encounters (and requires) many equations in the teaching and learningof most any engineering subject. The ability to see that many of these equations are specialcases, or are subordinate to some higher-level principle, is a major factor in distinguishingexperts from novices. Experts see the big picture and understand the key concepts that apply tothe solution of a problem. Interestingly, there is little difference between experts and novices intheir abilities to solve textbook problems, i.e., to perform well in a “plug-and-chug” mode.However, serious gaps exist between novices and experts in their conceptual understandingassociated with any given problem. We, and many others, conclude from this research thathelping students develop a deep conceptual knowledge in various engineering domains can speedtheir progress in becoming experts, i.e., skillful engineers. One approach to helping studentsachieve a higher level of conceptual understanding is the development of engineering curriculathat are integrated using a relatively few big-picture concepts. Various NSF-funded coalitions,and others, have designed curricula based on various integrating concepts [3]. For example,Richards [4] describes the design a core mechanical engineering curriculum in which ten keydefinitions and concepts perform the task of integration. Success in sustaining these curricula ismixed. An alternative to the integrated curriculum approach is to deal more explicitly withdeveloping students’ conceptual knowledge in the framework of the conventional curriculum,focusing at the course level on what are the big concepts or universal principles both within thecourse-specific domain and, more generally, within the engineering domain. This is hardly anew idea. However, seeing that students’ conceptual understanding is, in general, weak, weinvestigate in this paper how this idea can be used to guide our teaching of core engineeringsubjects. Engineering courses are by necessity equation rich. It is likely that this richness fostersa plug-and-chug approach to solving problems. In spite of there being many equations, mostsubject areas can be parsed to reveal a relatively small number of overriding concepts orprinciples. One useful goal is to create a minimum set of concepts or categories that can beeasily assimilated by students. We illustrate this approach applied to an engineeringthermodynamics course. Our purpose here is to cause engineering educators to reflect on theircourse design to enhance the development of conceptual knowledge and not to force others toadopt our particular treatment of any subject. We illustrate how the richness of the subject canbe developed from a few key concepts and how such an approach can be useful in thescaffolding and transfer of knowledge to courses requiring such prerequisite knowledge. Wealso explore the application of other ideas from educational psychology to the teaching ofthermodynamics.References1. Chi, M. T. H., Glaser, R., Reese, E., ”Expertise in Problem Solving,” in Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Vol. 1, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1982, pp. 7-75.2. Larkin, J., McDermott, J., Simon, D. P., and Simon, H. A., “Expert and Novice Performance in Solving Physics Problems,” Science 108: 1335-1342 (1980).3. Froyd, J. E., and Ohland, M. W., “Integrated Engineering Curricula,” Journal of Engineering Education, 147-164, January 2005.4. Richards, D. E., “Integrating the Mechanical Engineering Core,” Proceedings of the 2001 ASEE Annual Conference and Exhibition, 2001.

Turns, S. R., & Van Meter, P. N. (2011, June), Applying Knowledge from Educational Psychology and Cognitive Science to a First Course in Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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