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The Conceptual Fluency Approach for Introductory Thermodynamics

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Approaches to Assessment and Student Reflection

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Catherine Marie Hamel University of Maryland

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Catherine "Cara" Hamel is a professional track faculty member with the Keystone Program at the University of Maryland. Within this role, Catherine focuses on effectively teaching fundamental engineering courses for first and second year students, teaching Thermodynamics, Introduction to Engineering Design among others. Catherine currently serves as the Course Lead for Thermodynamics, teaching alongside a group of professional-track and tenure-track instructors. Previously, she worked for AcuTech Group, Inc., a specialty consulting firm with a focus in process safety, chemical security and emergency management. Outside of UMD, Catherine can be found at her alma mater Elizabeth Seton High School, where she serves on the Strategic Planning Committee and helps with their blooming engineering program.

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W. Ethan Eagle University of Maryland

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Dr. Eagle is a professor of practice in engineering and innovation design. His curriculum design for innovation, co-developed by and building on the research of Jeff and Staney DeGraff, was adopted by the University of Michigan 'Certified Professional Innovator' program in 2014, one of the first such certifications in the country. Now a faculty member in the Keystone Program at the University of Maryland, Dr. Eagle's current work is on the integration of diverse perspectives to discover unique engineering design spaces and on the development of multi-disciplinary courses that bring together students of multiple colleges and/or universities.

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This work in progress paper presents an overview and initial results of a new assessment method developed for an introductory thermodynamics course. The method, named the “Conceptual Fluency Approach,” is based on similar methods used at other universities for large, multi-instructor courses. The motivation for the Conceptual Fluency Approach is to promote “fluency” in fundamental thermodynamics concepts and long-term retention of these concepts for future courses, such as heat transfer, fluid mechanics and fluid dynamics. An analogy often used when explaining the Conceptual Fluency Approach to students is the learning of a new language: the Conceptual Fluency Approach aims to pass on students who are not only able to recite the “key phrases” of thermodynamics, but also understand the “grammar” (problem solving steps), recite complex sentences (solve multi-concept problems), and fluently create your own prose (solve novel thermodynamic problems that have never been seen before). In order to promote this Conceptual Fluency, the instructional staff has constructed an assessment method that includes (1) three “levels” of problem types that mirror increasing conceptual complexity, (2) a strictly defined partial-credit rubric that does not give points for conceptual errors, (3) a “flipped struggle” scheme where students identify and learn from their own errors in their solutions and (4) a two-attempt system for assessments, where students have a second attempt to show they have identified their mistakes on the first attempts, filled these conceptual gaps of knowledge, and are able to showcase their improved conceptual fluency on the second attempt. The Conceptual Fluency Approach is in the early implementation stage and the instructors are collecting preliminary data to evaluate the effectiveness of the assessment method. It is not anticipated that a comprehensive evaluation can be performed after only one or two semesters of this method being used. As such, this paper will describe the pedagogical approach, the preliminary data analysis (with a focus on descriptive statistics) and the lessons learned from this first implementation. Of particular interest to the author is the role of entitlement and identity in the success of students within this assessment method, and whether there are equity concerns that must be better understood and addressed in the Conceptual Fluency Approach.

Hamel, C. M., & Eagle, W. E. (2020, June), The Conceptual Fluency Approach for Introductory Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35299

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