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Using Simple Experiments To Teach Core Concepts In The Thermal And Fluid Sciences

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Design of Lab Experiments II

Tagged Division

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1562.1 - 12.1562.19



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Paper Authors


Gerald Recktenwald Portland State University

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Gerald Recktenwald is an Associate Professor in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department at Portland State Unviersity. He is a member of ASEE, ASME, IEEE and SIAM.

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Robert Edwards Pennsylvania State University-Erie

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Robert Edwards is currently a Lecturer in Engineering at The Pennsylvania State Erie - The Behrend College where he teaches Statics, Dynamics, and Fluid and Thermal Science courses. He earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology and an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering from Gannon University.

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

Using Simple Experiments to Teach Core Concepts in the Thermal and Fluid Sciences


This paper documents the start of a research project involving laboratory exercises for core undergraduate classes in the thermal and fluid sciences. Students perform experiments on everyday technology such as a hair dryer, a bicycle pump, a blender, a computer power supply, and a toaster, or very simple hardware such as a tank of water with a hole in it, or a pipe section with a change of area. The equipment is chosen because it is familiar to students, or at least that the physical principles of operation are easy to understand. The laboratory exercises are designed to confront students with conundrums and to expose their misperceptions about the engineering principles at work.

Before describing our laboratory exercises, we review other innovations in laboratory-based instruction. Many laboratory courses in undergraduate engineering curricula do not encourage student curiosity. The typical laboratory involves canned or cookbook experiments (often unchanged after years of use) that require the student to record a predefined range of values from preconfigured instruments. We acknowledge that too many lab exercises in our own institutions fall into this category. This recognition is part of the motivation for our current research on laboratory-based engineering education.

While there is some advantage to exposing students to preconfigured hardware that demonstrates a concept introduced in lecture, such laboratory experiences do not reflect the practice of engineering. The goal of typical laboratories is to reinforce ideas presented in lecture and to “prove” that the theory does apply to the “real world”. An unfortunate consequence of this type of laboratory exercise is to reinforce the misperception that the only purpose of a laboratory experiment is to set up a compare-and-contrast exercise for testing the agreement between theory and measurement.

Of course, alternative models for laboratory experiences exist. Bilal et al. describe a laboratory-based course designed to improve understanding of the theory of mechanical vibrations1. The ideas are promising, but the assessment results reported by Bilal et al. were limited to surveys of student attitudes from one offering of an elective course with 15 students. Despite the limited sample size, it is encouraging to find such an example of an engineering laboratory course in which the purpose of the lab work is to teach basic concepts, not just confirm theories presented in lecture.

Flora and Cooper describe four years of experience with a single inquiry-based laboratory experiment in a laboratory class having otherwise traditional experiments2. Flora and Cooper use the term “traditional” to means an experiment with a predetermined outcome. They use the term “inquiry-based” to mean an experiment with procedures defined by the students and having an outcome that is not known until the experiment is complete. Flora and Cooper evaluate the learning experience of students with a survey administered at the end of the class. They report that students believe that the inquiry-based experiment improved both their understanding of

Recktenwald, G., & Edwards, R. (2007, June), Using Simple Experiments To Teach Core Concepts In The Thermal And Fluid Sciences Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2737

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