Asee peer logo

Power/Knowledge: Using Foucault To Promote Critical Understandings Of Content And Pedagogy In Engineering Thermodynamics

Download Paper |


2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Integrating H&SS in Engineering I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1003.1 - 11.1003.16



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Donna Riley Smith College

visit author page

Donna Riley is Assistant Professor in the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College. Her work focuses on implementing liberative pedagogies in engineering education.

visit author page


Lionel Claris Smith College

visit author page

Lionel Claris holds a master's degree in education from Smith College and currently teaches Spanish and French to elementary school students in Springfield, MA. He is a passionate advocate for new ways of thinking about learning, involved locally in the Holistic School Project of Amherst and the Re-radicalization of Hampshire College.

visit author page

Download Paper |

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

Power/Knowledge: Using Foucault to promote critical understandings of content and pedagogy in Engineering Thermodynamics Abstract

Thermodynamics is a subject area in engineering that is deeply relevant, as it deals with energy use in society. However, students often struggle to connect their experiences of energy with course content traditionally based in theoretical discoveries from 19th century Western Europe. The work of French philosopher Michel Foucault is similar to thermodynamics in that its abstract poststructuralist theory strikes fear in the hearts of students, but can be made deeply relevant when its understanding is grounded in one’s experience.

An excerpt from Foucault’s Power/Knowledge discussing the “regime of truth” was used to stimulate critical thinking about the course content. In a reflective essay and class discussion, students considered the relationship between power and knowledge in thermodynamics and beyond. Analyzing student responses to the Foucault reading and regular course reflections reveals a significant shift in their understanding of classroom pedagogy, an increase in critical thinking about the course and its subject matter, and an emergence of independent ideas that students pursued further in the course.


Engineering students continually confront the challenge of bridging the gap between theory and practice, between curriculum content and learning process, between their engineering education and their future professional lives. The connections students make between their education and their personal lives is most often untapped. Using liberative pedagogies (processes that empower students in their learning through active engagement and self-reflection), the engineering thermodynamics course at Smith College has been revised to promote the relationship between thermodynamics and student experience.1 Student engagement with the classroom innovations aids the learning process and provides an opportunity for students to take responsibility for their learning. Thus, an excerpt from Foucault’s Power/Knowledge2 discussing the “regime of truth” was introduced to stimulate questions exploring the course content and the learning process, as well as to emphasize the ultimate goals of liberative pedagogies, critical thinking and reflective action.

Engineering 290: Engineering Thermodynamics covers a traditional core curriculum in thermodynamics in one semester, addressing applications in mechanical, chemical, and environmental engineering. After establishing a base of skills and knowledge (equations of state and properties of pure substances; the first law; the second law; and the fundamental property relations), students apply these principles to characterize different kinds of engineering systems, including engine and power cycles. The course objectives state that students develop:

Riley, D., & Claris, L. (2006, June), Power/Knowledge: Using Foucault To Promote Critical Understandings Of Content And Pedagogy In Engineering Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--155

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2006 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015