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Building a Foundation: Tools for Accentuating the First Law in an Introductory Thermodynamics Course

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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

Thermodynamics, Fluids, and Heat Transfer I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.238.1 - 24.238.9



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Paper Authors


Natasha Smith P.E. University of Southern Indiana

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Dr. Natasha Smith is Assistant Professor of Engineering at the University of Southern Indiana.

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Brandon S. Field University of Southern Indiana

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Building a Foundation: Using a First Law Poster and Stickers in an Introductory Thermodynamics Course Fundamentals courses (e.g. Statics, Thermodynamics, and Circuits) play an instrumentalrole in developing undergraduate students into skilled problem solvers. As such, these coursesbear the responsibility of (1) instilling discipline in problem solving and (2) familiarizingstudents with central concepts of engineering. The two goals are inextricably linked. Success inproblem solving is contingent upon understanding a remarkably few fundamental principles.Upon first introduction to new concepts, however, students usually lack the experience tounderstand how foundational those principles really are. In fact they can be adept atcompartmentalizing information at the expense of building up a foundation of knowledge.While this tactic may present a hope for short term success, as the quantity and variety ofproblems increase, their ability to apply the appropriate principle suffers. This is why disciplinewithin the problem solving method is so important; it forces the application of a very fewfundamental concepts to a broad array of problems. This paper discusses use of a classroomposter and student stickers with the first law of thermodynamics to encourage repeatedapplication of the same principle to a myriad of problems presented to them in class, ashomework, and on exams. An introductory thermodynamics course aims to teach a problem solving method whichinvolves, among other things, identifying appropriate assumptions and applying fundamentalprinciples of which the first law of thermodynamics is arguably the most important.Interestingly, despite the universality of this principle, textbooks often present several variants ofthe first law equation based on simplifying assumptions applicable for various special cases. Asa case in point, the Fundamentals of Engineering Supplied-Reference Handbook includes 6 firstlaw equations for closed systems and 11 for control-volume systems. This often leads toconfusion and detracts from the students’ appreciation for the fundamental nature of theprinciple. The authors have typically modeled problem solutions using only two first lawequations: one for closed systems and one for control volumes. The entire equation is presentedand subsequently reduced based on assumptions explicitly identified. However, many studentspersisted in omitting the full equation, proceeding directly to a shortened, problem-dependentform. Furthermore, repeated copying of the equation on the board became tedious even for theinstructor. This led to the idea of using a dry-erasable poster for the instructor and a sheet ofstickers for the students. The poster is presented for problems demonstrated on the board. Asassumptions are made, applicable terms are crossed off with a dry erase marker. Students followalong by pasting a sticker in their notes and crossing off the neglected terms with a pencil. Theproposition is that this simple accommodation gives students an appreciation for the wide-spreadapplication of the single principle. They are also believed to gain a better understanding of theunderlying assumptions for the various special cases. A post-course survey will be conducted toverify these assertions.

Smith, N., & Field, B. S. (2014, June), Building a Foundation: Tools for Accentuating the First Law in an Introductory Thermodynamics Course Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20129

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