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Development of Interactive Virtual Laboratories to Help Students Learn Difficult Concepts in Thermodynamics

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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

Virtual and Online Learning Tools in Chemical Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.426.1 - 24.426.26



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Paper Authors


Alec Steven Bowen Oregon State University

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Alec Bowen is an undergraduate in Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University and expects to receive his B.S. in June 2014. His research focuses on engineering education, particularly in the development and utilization of educational simulations and student personal epistemology.

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Daniel Robert Reid Oregon State University

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Daniel Reid is a graduate student in the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. He received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Oregon State University where he worked for Dr. Milo Koretsky developing the Interactive Virtual Laboratories. He is currently doing computational chemistry work under Juan de Pablo.

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Milo Koretsky Oregon State University

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Milo Koretsky is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from UC San Diego and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, all in Chemical Engineering. He currently has research activity in areas related engineering education and is interested in integrating technology into effective educational practices and in promoting the use of higher-level cognitive skills in engineering problem solving. His research interests particularly focus on what prevents students from being able to integrate and extend the knowledge developed in specific courses in the core curriculum to the more complex, authentic problems and projects they face as professionals. Dr. Koretsky is one of the founding members of the Center for Lifelong STEM Education Research at OSU.

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Development of Interactive Virtual Laboratories to Help Students Learn Difficult Concepts in ThermodynamicsIn this project, we explore the use of threshold concept theory as a design basis for developmentof Interactive Virtual Laboratories in thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is a difficult subject forchemical and biological engineering students to master. One reason for the difficulty is thediverse and challenging set of threshold concepts that they must coherently synthesize and beable to apply in a diverse range of contexts. Based on our experience and from reports in theliterature, we have identified a set of threshold concepts we propose are critical for mastery ofthermodynamics. To help students better learn these concepts, we have been developinginteractive virtual laboratories. This paper describes the development and initial investigation oftwo such laboratories.The Interactive Virtual Laboratories are a series of two-dimensional simulations designed toaddress the targeted threshold concepts. The design of these laboratories is based on allowingstudents to see and explore alternative representations of the phenomena that they are learning.They allow inquiry-based, scaffolded activity, and each has several activities that providemultiple representations. These activities guide students to perform virtual experiments, and alsoto place the virtual experiments in the context of the concepts that they are learning. Theyexplain concepts in a way that is less abstract and more intuitive to students by providing adynamic representation of phenomena at a molecular level. Students are expected to answernumerical questions and, whenever possible, predict and explain the effects of macroscopicchanges (i.e., pressure, temperature, composition, energy) based on observations of molecularproperties.In the study reported in this paper, we investigate how students experience the laboratories andwhether the students perceive the simulations are beneficial towards learning. The twointeractive virtual laboratories studied address the concepts of Pv work and reversible processes.Eight participants took part in the clinical study outside of the engineering classroom. Allstudents had previously taken a thermodynamics course and had access to a thermodynamicstextbook and the internet as they completed the laboratory. A “think aloud” protocol was usedwhere students were audio recorded as they verbally described their actions in completing thelaboratory. The transcribed audio recordings together with video recordings of the computerscreen on which they worked were analyzed. After completing the laboratory, a semi-structuredinterview asked participants about their perceptions of the simulation’s effectiveness, theirprevious thermodynamics experience, and a brief assessment of what they learned. Allinterviews were transcribed for analysis.The participants generally responded positively to the simulations. Seven out of eight studentsexplicitly stated that the dynamic simulations helped them visualize and engage with theprocesses more than they could with the static depictions in books or lecture. However, somedifficulties were observed, including interacting with the interface and understanding specificallywhat a question was asking. One participant found the interactivity to be unintuitive. We alsonoticed a relation between how the participants framed knowledge and their approach tocompleting the laboratory. Students who activated more sophisticated frames typicallycompleted the simulation more quickly and accurately than those with more naive frames.Students who did not do as well tended to focus on trying to identify equations they had used inthe past, even going so far as to use them in an unsuitable context. On the other hand, studentswho completed the simulations accurately and more quickly appeared to integrate what theywere seeing on the screen with their foundational conceptual knowledge to form newunderstanding.

Bowen, A. S., & Reid, D. R., & Koretsky, M. (2014, June), Development of Interactive Virtual Laboratories to Help Students Learn Difficult Concepts in Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20317

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