Design your own thermodynamics experiment, a problem-based learning approach in engineering technology Conference Paper uri icon


  • Thermodynamics is a difficult course for many undergraduate students in engineering. Engineering technology students usually struggle with the abstract concepts used in thermodynamics because they are often difficult to relate to everyday experiences. So, one may ask: What is the best way to teach thermodynamics in engineering technology? What topics should be covered? How should laboratory activities be organized and aligned to enhance the learning process? These are some of the critical questions thermodynamics instructors face and should address to ensure successful course outcomes. Moreover, instructors have to decide how to present the course material in timely and efficient manner so students can swiftly and effectively retain and apply the concepts learned. An active learning approach is needed where students are highly encouraged to participate in the learning process. Several active learning approaches have been proposed and used in the past, including ProblemBased Learning (PBL). In this paper, a case study based on the problem-based learning approach is presented where course and laboratory activities are organized, aligned and coordinated so the students can logically and actively participate in the learning process. As part of a thermodynamic course, students acquire the necessary analytical and organizational skills for a comprehensive self-guided experimental task. Specifically, engineering technology students learn the fundamentals of experimental data analysis including curve fitting and error propagation analysis. Subsequently, electronic data logging and equipment-sensor interfacing, and sensor calibration are introduced through simple lab activities. Then the students are asked to perform first and second law analyses for a thermodynamic device and learn to quantify energy flow and the appropriate efficiency metrics. Once the students have mastered the assigned tasks, they select a thermodynamic device and design their own thermodynamic experiment. The experimental design should include first and second law analyses, error propagation analysis, and appropriate data logging equipment selection. At the end, students submit a written report and make an oral presentation to defend their proposed experiment. The goal of the self-guided assignment is to encourage students to apply the concepts learned in the course. The experimental activities are presented in a sequential manner so each student can develop the necessary skills and enhance his or her level of self-confidence when dealing with a demanding task in the area of thermal sciences. As part of the case study, evaluation of a designed experiment is presented to determine how effectively the implemented methodology enhances the learning process in engineering technology. © American Society for Engineering Education, 2006.

author list (cited authors)

  • Alvarado, J.

complete list of authors

  • Alvarado, J

publication date

  • January 2006