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Connecting Experiment, Theory, And Physical Intuition In Heat Transfer With A Low Cost Solar Water Heater Design Project

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Design Projects in Mechanical Engineering II

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.311.1 - 15.311.16



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Paper Authors


Brent Nelson Northern Arizona University

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Brent Nelson completed his PhD at GeorgiaTech performing interdisciplinary research at the intersection of thermal transport, materials science, and nanofabrication. Before joining the faculty at NAU in 2008, he served as a postdoctoral fellow in engineering education with the National Academy of Engineering CASEE program, during which he worked with the Center for Biologically-Inspired Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There he studied the use of Biologically-Inspired Design as a context for studying innovative design, student design behavior, and multidisciplinary collaboration.

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Constantin Ciocanel Northern Arizona University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Connecting Experiment, Theory, and Physical Intuition in Heat Transfer With a Low-Cost Solar Water Heater Design Project


Engineering students often struggle with developing physical, tangible understandings of the theories they learn in the classroom. Additionally, they often struggle when faced with messy, non-idealized, real-world systems as opposed to the idealized geometries and assemblies frequently encountered within classrooms and textbooks. As such, they also rarely have the opportunity to learn how experimental design and theoretical modeling work together to understand practical systems. To address these shortcomings, a low-cost solar water heater design project was developed and integrated concurrently between a mechanical engineering heat transfer course and a thermal systems laboratory course. The low-cost constraint reinforced physical understanding of heat transfer concepts and ensured messy, non-ideal designs to which theoretical modeling could not be neatly applied. A heat transfer concept inventory to assess student learning showed minimal gains in student understanding while a self-report attitude survey administered to the students demonstrated that they perceived the design project to be a valuable and enjoyable learning experience. Students failed, however, to understand the complementary nature of experimentation and theoretical modeling. Improved coordination between the two classes was needed to fully realize this benefit, and will be implemented in the future.

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Background

Pedagogical research carried out in many science and engineering courses have shown that students can develop the ability to correctly solve mathematical problems without having a physical, conceptual understanding of the topics involved. Concept inventories developed to test students’ conceptual understanding before and after taking a class on a topic have shown that students frequently exhibit no gain or even regress in their conceptual understanding, regardless of their academic performance within the class.1 Students frequently fail to understand how to apply mathematical concepts to real problems.

Within mechanical engineering curriculum, heat transfer is considered a notoriously difficult course for students.2,3 Concept inventories have been developed to assess students’ level of conceptual understanding; reported student scores on these inventories have been quite low, with average performance in the range of 50%.2,4 The incorporation of active learning approaches within classes and programs have been shown to increase conceptual understanding of core content,5 but are infrequently utilized in core content engineering courses such as those in the thermal sciences, due to time and financial constraints.

In addition to struggling with conceptual understanding of physical systems, students also struggle to understand how to model and analyze real systems. This is in part due to the fact that assigned homework problems can often be solved following a cook book type solution laid out in

Nelson, B., & Ciocanel, C. (2010, June), Connecting Experiment, Theory, And Physical Intuition In Heat Transfer With A Low Cost Solar Water Heater Design Project Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16758

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