Improving Students' Problem-Solving Abilities in Thermodynamics

Project: Research project

Project Details


Research and Assessment (89) and Engineering - Other (59)

As noted in an influential National Academy of Engineering assessment, two skill attributes of engineers that are of growing importance are the ability to use science and practical ingenuity to identify problems and solve them and very strong analytical skills (The Engineer of 2020: Visions for Engineering in a New Century, National Academy Press, 2004). This project is working to develop these attributes in undergraduate engineering programs in the foundational area of thermodynamics. The project's initial step is research into the ability of students to function effectively in this area, building on research that the same team of engineers and educational psychologists has recently completed in engineering mechanics - specifically statics. The research in this project will be augmented by designing educational interventions and the creation of an assessment tool focused on student ability to problem solve in thermodynamics.

The research focuses on the modeling steps in thermodynamics problem solving that require students to read the problem, to abstract a model of the system to be analyzed, typically a thermodynamic process plot or an energy-flow diagram, and then to create a mathematical model of the system using process descriptors and state relations or applying energy conservation. The first step in the research is addressing the questions: 'What major difficulties do students encounter in solving problems in thermodynamics?' and 'Can what students know about free-body diagrams be used as scaffolding to develop skills in creating energy flow or process diagrams?'

To explore these questions, written and verbal protocols are being developed by the team, guided by its work in statics and the extensive published literature on this subject. The results of this work are intended for use in designing initial interventions to improve students' problem-solving abilities. These initial interventions will be piloted and refined. The assessment instruments and interventions are being designed to be suitable for large-scale use, evaluation, and dissemination. Among the methods planned for disseminating the results of this project is the use of the Cambridge University Press's website for worldwide dissemination.

Effective start/end date2/15/116/30/13


  • National Science Foundation: $200,000.00


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