Redesigning the First Course of Thermodynamics to Improve Student Conceptualization and Application of Entropy and Second Law Concepts Conference Paper uri icon


  • The first course on thermodynamics (FTC), as taught in most mechanical engineering disciplines, typically follows a standard topical progression: properties of substances, first law concepts of closed systems, first law concepts of open systems, second law concepts, and cycles. Students often struggle with some concepts in courses that follow such a presentation. First, introduction of second law concepts late in the course leaves less time for students to apply second law concepts; student understanding of such likely suffers. Second, the flow of material goes from "specific" (closed system analysis) to "general" (open system analysis), which delays opportunities for students to use assumptions to develop simplified models that can be analyzed. Third, disconnects between entropy and energy prevent students from recognizing the "value" or quality of energy and why energy has different "forms" (e.g., thermal, mechanical, and chemical). This paper describes a course redesign with the following objective: improve student knowledge and application of entropy and second law concepts, and the role second law concepts have on energy conversion, by integrating second law concepts and entropy throughout the course. The redesigned course was first taught in Fall 2012 and has been taught three times. In addition to describing the course redesign, the paper uses a newly designed concept inventory to assess conceptual growth of students in the redesigned course. The concept inventory reveals that students in the redesigned FTC capture some second law concepts better than students in the conventional FTC; these concepts mostly include those related to exergy (the availability of energy to do useful work). On average, however, students in the redesigned FTC score about the same on the second law concept inventory as those students in the conventional FTC. American Society for Engineering Education, 2014.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Jacobs, T. J., Caton, J. A., Froyd, J. E., & Rajagopal, K. R.

complete list of authors

  • Jacobs, Timothy J||Caton, Jerald A||Froyd, Jeffrey E||Rajagopal, Kumbakonam Ramamani

publication date

  • January 2014