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Computer Simulations vs.Physical Experiments: A Gender Comparison of Implementation Methods for Inquiry-Based Heat Transfer Activities

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

ChemE Curriculum: Junior, Senior, and Graduate

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Katharyn E. K. Nottis Bucknell University

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Dr. Nottis is an Educational Psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Education at Bucknell University. Her research has focused on meaningful learning in science and engineering education, approached from the perspective of Human Constructivism. She has authored several publications and given numerous presentations on the generation of analogies, misconceptions, and facilitating learning in science and engineering education. She has been involved in collaborative research projects focused on conceptual learning in chemistry, chemical engineering, seismology, and astronomy.

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Margot A. Vigeant Bucknell University

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Margot Vigeant is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. She earned her B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University, and her M.S. and Ph.D., also in chemical engineering, from the University of Virginia. Her primary research focus is on engineering pedagogy at the undergraduate level. She is particularly interested in the teaching and learning of concepts related to thermodynamics. She is also interested in active, collaborative, and problem-based learning, and in the ways hands-on activities such as making, technology, and games can be used to improve student engagement.

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Michael J. Prince Bucknell University

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Dr. Michael Prince is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University and co-director of the National Effective Teaching Institute. His research examines a range of engineering education topics, including how to assess and repair student misconceptions and how to increase the adoption of research-based instructional strategies by college instructors and corporate trainers. He is actively engaged in presenting workshops on instructional design to both academic and corporate instructors.

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Amy Frances Golightly Bucknell University Orcid 16x16


Carrine Megan Gadoury Bucknell University

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Carrine Gadoury graduated in 2019 with a BA in Education and a minor in Psychology and plans to go to graduate school to obtain a Masters in Education.

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Fundamental concepts in chemical engineering such as rate versus the amount of heat transferred and thermal radiation, may be difficult for students to understand. This can be due to preconceived beliefs containing what have been labeled misconceptions (Streveler, Olds, Miller & Nelson, 2003). Self, Miller, Kean, Moore, Ogletree and Schreiber (2008) found that almost 30% of chemical and mechanical engineering seniors could not, “…logically distinguish between temperature and energy in simple engineering systems and process” (p. S2G-1). While prior research has found that one way to alter these misconceptions is with inquiry-based activities, there may be differing outcomes based on their method of implementation. For example, some research has indicated computer simulations may be able to more clearly demonstrate a concept than an experiment (de Ton & Van Joolingen, 1998) because simulations highlight important evidence and delete confusing information (Trundle & Bell, 2010). Other research found that students in both a physical and virtual labs outperformed students doing just a physical lab focused on heat and temperature (Zacharia, Olympiou, & Papaevripidou, 2008). Even with effective implementation methods, there can also be differences in learning based on the composition of lab groups. Ding, Bosker, and Harskamp (2011) found that females in single-gender dyads significantly outperformed females in mixed-gender dyads. For males, this pattern was not evident.

This quasi-experimental study compared two implementation methods for inquiry-based activities. The inquiry activities were designed to address previously identified misconceptions in rate versus the amount of heat transferred and thermal radiation. Intact groups of engineering undergraduates from two different universities across multiple semesters participated in research to see whether their understanding of those concepts would alter and differ after instruction based on instructional method and gender. One group of participants used computer simulations while the other group primarily did physical experiments. Changes in conceptual understanding were assessed using the Heat and Energy Concept Inventory (HECI; Prince, Vigeant, & Nottis, 2010) and two of its sub-tests: Rate versus Amount and Radiation. Each conceptual area was evaluated separately to determine whether one method of implementation facilitated conceptual understanding better than the other and whether there were differences by gender.

Both implementation groups sampled were predominantly composed of white males majoring in Chemical Engineering with self-reported GPAs of 3.0 and higher. Findings showed that participants who used physical experiments to learn the concepts had significantly higher mean post-test scores on the total HECI and their respective sub-tests than those who used computer simulations. Descriptive statistics for gender and implementation method showed this same pattern for males and females. A two-way ANOVA revealed there was a significant difference by gender and instructional method on the total post-test score (HECI) for those who used inquiry-based radiation activities. Scores for males who did physical experiments were significantly higher than females who did physical experiments. However, when pre-test scores were controlled, there were no significant gender differences.

References De Ton, J., & van Joolingen. (1998). Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 179-201.

Ding, N., Bosker, R. J., & Harskamp, E. G. (2011). Exploring gender and gender pairing in the knowledge elaboration processes of students using computer supported collaborative learning. Computers & Education, 56(2), 325-336.

Prince, M. J., Vigeant, M. A. S., & Nottis, K. E. K. (2010). Assessing misconceptions of undergraduate engineering students in the thermal sciences. International Journal of Engineering Education, 26 (4), 880-890. Self, B. P., Miller, R. L., Kean, A., Moore, T. J., Ogletree, T., & Schreiber, F. (2008, October). Important student misconceptions in mechanics and thermal science: Identification using model-eliciting activities. Paper presented at the ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY. Streveler, R. A., Olds, B. M., Miller, R., & Nelson, M. A. (2003). Using a Delphi study to identify the most difficult concepts for students to master in thermal and transport science. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Nashville, TN. Trundle, K. C., & Bell, R. L. (2010). The use of a computer simulation to promote conceptual change: A quasi-experimental study. Computers & Education, 54(4), 1078-1088. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.10.012 Zacharia, Z. C., Olympiou, G., & Papaevripidou, M. (2008). Effects of experimenting with physical and virtual manipulatives on students conceptual understanding in heat and temperature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(9), 1021-1035. doi:10.1002/tea.20260

Nottis, K. E. K., & Vigeant, M. A., & Prince, M. J., & Golightly, A. F., & Gadoury, C. M. (2018, June), Computer Simulations vs.Physical Experiments: A Gender Comparison of Implementation Methods for Inquiry-Based Heat Transfer Activities Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30214

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