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Making their Brains Hurt: Quick and Effective Activities for Thermodynamics

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

New Ideas for the ChemE Core

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.910.1 - 25.910.12

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Paper Authors

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Margot A. Vigeant Bucknell University

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Michael J. Prince Bucknell University


Katharyn E. K. Nottis Bucknell University

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Katharyn Nottis is an Educational Psychologist whose 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. She has been involved in collaborative research projects focused on conceptual learning in chemistry, seismology, and chemical engineering.

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Making  their  Brains  Hurt:  Quick  and  Effective  Activities  for  Thermodynamics    Nearly  half  of  the  students  starting  engineering  thermodynamics  believe  that  the  thermal  efficiency  of  a  typical  engine  is  nearly  100%  (Vigeant,  Prince,  and  Nottis,2011).    This  belief  is  challenging  to  displace,  even  for  students  who  demonstrate  faculty  with  mathematical  descriptions  of  efficiency.    While  traditional  lecture  is  not  highly  effective  at  reversing  students’  misconceptions,  several  supporting  approaches  such  as  clicker-­‐questions  and  inquiry-­‐based  activities  have  been  demonstrated  to  be  effective  in  changing  students’  minds.        In  this  work,  we  developed  two  inquiry-­‐based  activities  to  address  each  of  five  areas  identified  as  important  yet  challenging  for  students:    Entropy,  Reversibility,  Confusion  between  Enthalpy  and  Internal  energy,  Confusion  between  Equilibrium  and  Steady  State,  and  Confusion  over  factors  impacting  Chemical  Equilibrium  and  Reaction  Rate.    The  activities  each  start  by  setting  up  a  situation  where  students’  most  common  misconceptions  lead  them  astray,  and  ask  them  to  make  a  prediction.    This  is  followed  by  a  hands-­‐on  experiment  (when  possible)  or  an  interactive  simulation  (when  not)  in  which  students  directly  interact  with  the  situation  that  provoked  their  prediction.    These  situations  are  designed  so  that  the  predictions  based  upon  the  most  common  misconceptions  fail  to  explain  what  is  observed.    Students  are  allowed  and  encouraged  to  “mess  with”  the  experiment  to  verify  that  the  surprising  result  isn’t  a  trick.    Finally  a  series  of  follow-­‐up  and  reflection  questions  encourages  students  to  incorporate  the  new  information  into  their  existing  understanding.    Each  activity  is  designed  to  take  about  15  minutes  and  use  materials  found  commonly  in  chemical  engineering  laboratories  or  available  at  Wal-­‐Mart.        These  activities  have  been  shown  to  improve  students’  concept  inventory  scores  another  10  percentage  points  over  lecture  alone.    In  the  following  paper,  we  will  present  a  summary  of  each  activity  and  its  implementation,  as  well  as  further  evidence  for  the  effectiveness  of  the  approach.        

Vigeant, M. A., & Prince, M. J., & Nottis, K. E. K. (2012, June), Making their Brains Hurt: Quick and Effective Activities for Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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