Energy misconceptions mav4_after_feedbackx - Energy Summit


Oct 27, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)



Repairing Engineering Students’ Misconceptions about Energy and Thermodynamics

Margot Vigeant, Michael Prince, Katharyn Nottis, and Ronald Miller


To work successfully with “energy”, engineering students need to understand the impacts of the allied concepts of
the second law, internal energy and enthalpy, the distinction between energy and temperature, and the distinction
between rate and amount of e
nergy transfer. Students who demonstrate computational faculty with these areas may
still exhibit significant misunderstandings about the underlying concepts when asked purely conceptual questions.
Misunderstanding of energy related concepts will hinder
students’ ability to correctly address problems at an expert
level. Further, accurate conceptual understanding is key to sharing their work with the broader public.
Understanding energy related concepts more accurately will enable broader society to make

better choices about
technology, energy conservation, and investment of resources. While standard lecture courses do little to reverse
misconceptions in this and other areas, active engagement methods show significant promise for improving
students’ unde
rstanding. We describe one approach, inquiry
based activities, that has shown promise in long
repair of engineering students’ misconceptions in energy
related areas.

What should people know about energy, and why?

Our primary concern is educating u
ndergraduate engineers, specifically in the areas of
thermodynamics and heat transfer.

these students need to understand encompasses both
the interrelationships and transformations between internal, potential, and kinetic energy, heat
and work that e
nable cars, phones, satellites and skyscrapers. In a typical curriculum, an
engineering graduate is taught to be be conversant in the equations that describe these
conversions, the Laws of Thermodynamics, as well as those that govern the rates at which th
movements occur, part of Heat Transfer. Graduates use these equations to design, operate, and
improve power plants, chemical plants, and engines that provide the infrastructure for modern
society. This, for us, captures the first part of “
” studen
ts need to learn about energy.

The second part of “
” is broader. Even if a graduate never designs a chemical or power
plant, even if they never touch the equations of thermodynamics and heat transfer again after
their studies, they still require an e
xcellent understanding of energy related concepts. For
example, electric cars are hailed as “zero emissions”
(Nissan, 2012)
. Discussion of these
vehicles in the popular press reveals that many people do not realize that
the electricity needed to
charge the car is typically generated by combustion; mass and energy are conserved, and while
the car is not (or is less of) a point
source for emissions, it is still an emissions source at the
power plant. This is not to say suc
h cars are not better; but that we should honestly engage with
the issues. However, it is well documented that a technical understanding does not necessarily
translate to a conceptual understanding of a given issue; misconceptions in the area of heat,
rgy, and temperature are well documented
Thomas, Malaquas, Valente, & Antunes
, 1
Carlton, 2000; Jasien & Oberem, 2002; Sozbilir, 2003; Sozbilir, 2004; Sozbilir & Bennett,
. If engineering graduates cannot take a leadership role in honest evaluation of public
energy policy based on solid technical and conceptual understand
ing, who will?

Students enter our classrooms, not as blank slates, but holding significant ideas about how the
world works
Bransford, Brown, & Cocking
, 2000)
. Even in advanced areas such as engineering
mics, where one would think students’ ability to form preconceptions would be
limited, students’ early life and educational experiences inform their understanding of concepts
to as great or greater extent as their understanding of the relevant equations. F
or example, the
same student who would correctly answer the question “Two surfaces in a windowless room are
in contact only with each other and with quiescent air at 25ºC. The temperature of one surface is


measured and found also to be at 25ºC. What is t
he temperature of the other surface?” may give
an incorrect answer to the more experiential number
free question “Is the temperature of a tile
floor higher, lower, or the same as a carpeted floor in the same room?”
(Georgiou & Devi
Sharma, 2012)

Other work in this book focuses largely on initial construction of understanding. Our focus is on
repair of misconceptions

that is, encouraging students to un
learn incorrect conceptual
explanations of the wo
rld, and replace them with more conceptually accurate mental models.
While both are valuable, we have seen that at the university level, engagement of students’ prior
understanding is often neglected in favor of content driven presentation of theories and

equations. However, without the explicit engagement of prior understanding, students often
layer new information over their previous incorrect understanding, leaving them as procedural
problem solvers rather than moving them along the trajectory towards
level problem
solving. Expert
level problem solvers tend to organize their approach conceptually rather than
procedurally, which is why we want to encourage students’ understanding in this realm in
addition to their procedural understanding.

It i
s worth pointing out that persistent misconceptions in these areas are found both in the k
student population and in the STEM undergraduate population. It would be a reasonable
hypothesis that high school graduates who pursue engineering as undergradua
tes would be those
for whom K
12 STEM instruction had been most successful and compelling, as evidenced by
their high grades in math and science and subsequent enrollment in higher education. However,
instruction built upon “teaching by telling” is not ve
ry effective at repairing misconceptions, and
computational ability of the type that gets students into undergraduate engineering programs,
does not guarantee that conceptual understanding was achieved.

It is this persistence of deep
seated misconceptio
ns in the face of mathematical competence that
drives our work. Engineers, called upon to design heat exchangers, will recognize which
governing equations to use to describe and specify the system. However, in an equation
context of societal decisio
making, we need engineers who understand concepts as well as
equations, both to represent their work appropriately to society at large but also to make
competent personal decisions about energy consumption, production, and use.

Beyond engineers, there

is a broader societal need for understanding of key ideas in both
thermodynamics and heat transfer. The drive for conceptual understanding is even more critical
for the general public, as they typically won’t have a set of equations to fall back on. The

and second laws of thermodynamics

conservation of energy and increase of entropy

all political and social energy discussions about ‘energy independence’, ‘hydrogen economy’,
and ‘green energy’. As with the example of the Nissan Leaf ab
ove, the impacts of
thermodynamics are often minimized in popular discussion of ‘green’ technology, to the ultimate
detriment of that technology.

Our work in particular seeks to repair engineering students’ misconceptions about the energy
related areas
of: the second law; the distinction between enthalpy and internal energy; the
distinction between temperature and energy; and the distinction between factors impacting the
rate of heat transfer and those impacting the amount of energy transferred. While t
engineering coursework is able to build computational competency in these areas, our work
demonstrates that it is less successful at developing conceptual understanding. We will then


discuss the inquiry
based activities, built upon the Workshop Phy
sics model
(Laws, Sokoloff, &
Thornton, 1999)
, and their success at repairing students understanding in these concept areas.

What are the challenges we are facing in teaching students about energy?

Based on our work, engineering undergraduates enter thermodynamics and heat transfer courses
with a concept inventory score of less than 50% on energy
related concepts. After a university
worth of instruction, students score about 60% on these same

concepts (see Table 3
below). This score is much lower than the students’ typical grade within the courses, which is
largely based upon students’ ability to manipulate equations. Our challenge, therefore, is to
maintain students’ faculty with the equati
ons of thermodynamics and heat transfer while building
improved conceptual understanding. Complicating this challenge is the fact that students’
preconceptions in these areas are often incorrect and resistant to change through ‘telling’;
something besides

simply telling them the correct answer must be done to allow them to repair
their understanding
(Streveler, Litzinger, Miller, & Steif, 2008)

In this section, we will present the common misconceptions that engineering students hold about
the important energy
related areas listed above. We selected most of these areas for study
because they were identified as both important and difficult to unde
rstand in a Delphi study
(Streveler, Olds, Miller, & Nelson, 2003)

The Second Law

The second law of thermodynamics implies that the amount of work that may be generated by a
given energy source is generally less
than the total amount of energy that could be transferred by
that source. This is perhaps the most important energy
related concept because it is the primary
limiting feature in humanity’s ability to harness energy to do useful work. When asked why a
en system is not 100% efficient at turning heat into work, a student might point to design
factors such as friction and insulation, rather than the impossibility of this conversion based on
the second law. Misconceptions about the second law and entropy h
ave been documented
(Sozbilir & Bennett, 2007; Kesidou & Duit, 1993)
. This area is particularly important
for society as a whole: the second law limits how far a car

can go on a gallon of gas, helps
explain why solar panels don’t turn all incident light into electricity, and why running a process
that produces hydrogen gas from water that is then returned to water in a fuel
cell car, does not
in fact even produce as m
uch work as went into the production of the hydrogen in the first place.

Temperature and Energy

Students will often interpret the temperature of a system as the most direct indicator of the
energy content of that system, neglecting other important facto
rs such as the size of the system in
Miller et al.
, 2006;
Nottis, Prince, & Vigeant
Prince, Vigeant, & Nottis
; Streveler
et al., 2008)
. For example, students might predict that a burn resulting from a single 1000º spark
would be worse than from 10mL of boiling water, although the reverse is true.
Misunderstandings about the relationship between temperatur
e and energy have been
documented in pre
college students and among scientists in addition to within the college
(Lewis & Linn, 1994; Kesidou & Duit, 1993)

Rate vs. Amount

Students often confuse factors impacting the rate at which heat is transferred from one substance
to another with factors that impact how rapidly that transfer o
ccurs. For example, if asked which


would cool a drink faster

an equal mass of ice as fine chips or as a single large cube, students
correctly state that the chips will cool the drink faster. But they also tend to predict that the same
ice chips will coo
l the drink to a lower temperature, which is not the case. While this particular
misconception area has not yet been extensively studied in the K
12 population, the authors’
experience with children suggests this might be prevalent in that group as well;
requests to put a
stove or air conditioner on “high” in order to both change temperature “fast” and by “lots!” are
fairly common.

Internal Energy and Enthalpy

When considering the energy
related state and processes of a given system, engineers typically

consider quantities of and transformations between many different ‘kinds’ of energy. These are
simplified for convenience into only those terms that have significant impact in an engineering
context. This presents a challenge, as it means that in speaki
ng of energy, the public, physicists,
and engineers (and even different kinds of engineers) may have different ways to describe the
same situation. This particular concept area deals with distinguishing to related but distinct
measures of energy and is th
erefore unique on this list as being important for engineers and
scientists, but not really that important for the broader community.

Enthalpy can be thought of as a shorthand notation for a state variable that captures in one term
both internal energy
and flow
work. Flow
work is work done by a moving fluid as it pushes the
fluid ahead of it out of the way
(Koretsky, 2004)
. Students’ misconception in this area is that
both internal en
ergy and enthalpy terms are equivalent; or, stated another way, that flow work
does not exist. This concept is the most specialized of the concepts discussed here, and its
confusion is evident less in everyday situations than in engineering calculations.

substitution of enthalpy for internal energy or vice versa could result in a calculation that over or
under represents the energy change of a given system.

What should be done to meet these challenges?

In the previous sections, we have define
d the concept areas within energy that have been
identified as particularly important and challenging for engineering students, as well as the
common misconceptions that make learning these ideas a particular challenge. In this section

Based Appr

Laws et al, in Workshop Physics, suggest that inquiry
based activities are significantly more
effective than lecture for repair of misconceptions in physics
(Laws et al., 1999)
. In our work,
we adapted their approa
ch to create and test activities for the concept areas given above. Laws et
al cite several key aspects of inquiry
based activities, shown in Table 1.

Elements of Inquiry
Based Activity Modules
(Laws et al.,


Use peer instruction and collaborative work


Use activity
based guided
inquiry curricular materials


Use a learning cycle beginning with predictions


Emphasize conceptual understanding


Let the physical world be the authority


Evaluate student


Make appropriate use of technology


Begin with the specific and move to the general


In our implementation of this approach, students are presented with a physical situation or
simulation quite similar to a question known to elicit misconcept
ions. For example, in the
internal energy vs. enthalpy concept area, students are asked how the temperature of air
emerging form a fan compares to the
temperature of the
air that entered the fan. Students record
their prediction

on a worksheet
, and then
engage in the experiment or simulation,
observations, ‘playing ‘ with the simulation/equipment, and
answering questions as they work.
Students are encouraged to ‘play’ with the activity and assure themselves that it is not a trick In
the case of t
he fan example, students may measure the temperature of air entering and exiting a
dryer (with the heating element ‘off’), as well as air flow rate and the Wattage drawn.
“play” with it by altering the speed of the fan, measuring the temperature

at multiple points in the
stream, all verifying for themselves that, yes, the temperature actually is higher at the outlet
than it was at the inlet.
Finally, students are asked for a written reflection on their original
prediction and an assessment o
f whether or not their original understanding was correct, and are
encouraged to discuss this with their peers. In the case of the fan example, students discover that
the temperature of the air emerging is higher than the air that entered; in part, this i
s because the
motor grows warm. However, even were this not the case, they are able to determine that the
temperature would still rise due to the work done by the fan on the air

energy is conserved!

In addition to incorporating the elements of Table 1,

activities were designed to take no more
than 20 minutes and require materials commonly available or that could be purchased for less
than $20.

The activities are typically used as experiments within the laboratory sequence
accompanying college
level eng
ineering courses on thermodynamics or heat transfer. Students
might complete the activities during laboratory time, and then complete the questions and post
analysis as homework or as a lab report. In some universities, these courses do not have an
panying laboratory, and are therefore completed in class, as in
class demonstrations, or as
homework in the case of the activities that are simulations.

Two inquiry
based activities were
created for each concept area, and are summarized in Table 2 below.


Summary of Activities

Concept Area



Second Law

Carnot engine: Students control the temperature of
the heat source and sink as well as the level of
friction inside a virtual power plant, and track the
resulting efficiency. The virtual power plant
operates on the Carnot cycle, the most efficient

for turning heat into work.


Cycle modeler: St
udents control a piston
cylinder in
which there is a fixed amount of an ideal gas.
Students can change the pressure, temperature, or
volume of that gas, or put the gas through an
adiabatic (no he
at exchange) step. By controlling a
series of steps, students can try to create a cycle that
produces work (an engine cycle) of their own
design, and interactively attempt to create a system
where all heat energy into the system is turned into
work by the

system. Through extensive


experimentation, they reinforce the idea that such a
system is not possible

Internal Energy vs.

dryer: Students measure the temperature of air
entering and leaving the hair dryer and determine
the source(s) of the
temperature increase
which is, in part, due to the increased enthalpy of
the outlet stream


Filling: Students
measure the sharp temperature
increase that occurs when air is allowed to fl
back into an evacuated container

S u b s e q u e n t
d i s c u s s i o n a n d c a l c u l a t i o n r e v e a l s t h a t t h i s i s
b e c a u s e t h e f l o w
w o r k e x e r t e d b y t h e i n c o m i n g a i r
b e c o me s a t e mp e r a t u r e i n c r e a s e i n

t h e c l o s e d
s y s t e m.

E x p e r i me n t

T e mp e r a t u r e v s.
E n e r g y

L i q u i d N
: S t u d e n t s a d d a s ma l l a mo u n t o f b o i l i n g
w a t e r o r a l a r g e a mo u n t o f i c e w a t e r t o i d e n t i c a l
c u p s o f l i q u i d n i t r o g e n a n d o b s e r v e w h i c h r e s u l t s i n
t h e mo s t b o i l
o f f o f t h e n i t r o g e n.

E x p e r i me n t

A d i a b a t i c v a l v e: S t u d e n t s a l l o w t h r e e g a s e s t o f l o w
t h r o u g h a v a l v e, e x p a n d i n g a s t h e y g o, a n d p r e d i c t
t h e r e s u l t i n g t e mp e r a t u r e c h a n g e.

S i mu l a t i o n

R a t e v s. A mo u n t

I c e
c h i p s v s. I c e C u b e: S t u d e n t s a d d e q u a l ma s s e s
o f i c e i n t h e f o r m o f c h i p s a n d a s i n g l e ‘ s n o w b a l l ’ t o
i d e n t i c a l c u p s o f w a t e r a n d o b s e r v e w a t e r
t e mp e r a t u r e v s. t i me.

T h e y s e e, c o n t r a r y t o t h e i r

E x p e r i me n t

H o t b l o c k s: S t u d e n t s c o n t r o l t h e p h y s i c a l
a r a me t e r s o f v i r t u a l me t a l b l o c k s

s u r f a c e a r e a,
d e n s i t y, t e mp e r a t u r e
, a s w e l l a s t h e n u mb e r a n d s i z e
o f b l o c k
s, a d d e d t o e q u a l ma s s e s o f i c e, a l l o w i n g
t h e m t o s e e w h i c h f a c t o r s c h a n g e h o w mu c h h e a t i s
t r a n s f e r r e d a n d w h i c h f a c t o r s c o n t r i b u t e t o h o w f a s t
t h a t t r a n s f e r o c c u r s.

S i mu l a t i o n

F u l l a c t i v i t y p a c k e t s a v a i l a b l e u p o n r e q u e s t f r o m t h e c o r r e s p o n d i n g a u t h o r.

R e s u l t s a n d D i s c u s s i o n

I n o r d e r t o d e t e r mi n e t h e e x t e n t o f c h a n g e i n c o n c e p t u a l u n d e r s t a n d i n g i n s t u d e n t s ’ a s t h e r e s u l t
o f t h e i n q u i r y
b a s e d

a c t i v i t i e s, w e a d mi n i s t e r e d c o n c e p t i n v e n t o r i e s. T h e s e i n s t r u me n t s a r e
d e v e l o p e d t o b e v a l i d a n d r e l i a b l e me a s u r e s o f c o n c e p t u a l u n d e r s t a n d i n g. A t y p i c a l c o n c e p t
i n v e n t o r y i s a mu l t i p l e
c h o i c e a s s e s s me n t w h e r e i n t h e ‘ w r o n g ’ a n s w e r s a r e ‘ d i s t r a c t o r s, i t e
s p e c i f i c a l l y w r i t t e n t o b e a t t r a c t i v e t o s t u d e n t s h o l d i n g w e l l k n o w n mi s c o n c e p t i o n s. F o r
e x a mp l e, F i g u r e 1 s h o w s a c o n c e p t i n v e n t o r y q u e s t i o n s i mi l a r t o t h e e x a mp l e a c t i v i t y d e s c r i b e d
a b o v e.


A question on the “internal energy vs. enthalpy” concept. Most correct answer is “d”;
most popular pre
test answer given by students is “a”.

The distractors in Figure 1 were created based upon students’ responses to a similar open


developed and administered concept inventories in these concept areas to document the
conceptual change as a result of using inquiry
based activities. The Heat and Energy Concept
Inventory (HECI)
(Prince, Vigeant, & N
ottis, 2012b)

and Concept Inventory for Engineering
Thermodynamics (CIET)
(Vigeant, Prince, & Nottis, 2011)

were used. Each of these benefitted
significantly from questions developed for the Thermal and Transpo
rt Concept Inventory
Streveler, Olds, & Slotta, 2011)
. For the ‘control’, the test was administered in the first two
weeks of the relevant course, and again in the final two weeks, with typical instruction occurring
during the course. For the ‘activities’ case, students participated in the inquiry
based ac
described above, taking the same pre

and post

tests. The results reflect undergraduate
engineering students responses from at least 10 different institutions, both large and small, public
and private, distributed throughout the United States.
Number of students responding in each
grouping shown in Table 3.


For each concept area, there are between 4
10 questions on the concept inventories. Somewhat
less than half of these questions relate directly to phenomena observed in activities (“near
ansfer”), while the remainder ask about the same concepts in novel situations (“far transfer”).

Table 3:

Impact of Activities on Conceptual Understanding.

Concept Area /

Control Pre

Control Post

Activities Pre

Activities Post









68.0% *


Internal Energy
vs. Enthalpy



38.5% *






vs. Energy /
Vigeant, &
Nottis, 2012b)








Rate vs.
Amount / HECI
(Prince et al.,



42.6% *






*significant change at the p<0.01 level; Note the large change in “n” from pre

to post

for Entropy and Internal
Energy is due to the data set being broken into subsets of students known to have completed

activities (shown)
and students known to have
completed only

of the activities (not shown). This group was omitted from this
data set because we could not be assured they had completed the activities for the relevant concept areas at this time.

In every case, students score significantly highe
r after instruction than before, as shown by
paired t
tests. However, using ANCOVA, students performing activities outperform students
who did not have access to activities significantly in every case but for the “entropy” concept
area, where the slight i
mprovement shown is not statistically significant based on current data
As described in more detail here
(Prince et al., 2012b)
, in the heat transfer concepts,
students using activities improved significa
ntly more than their non
activity using peers for both

and far

transfer questions, although their improvement for near
transfer questions was

The extent to which either traditional class or class plus activities impact students’ understan
is varied by concept area in ways it is challenging to interpret. We hypothesize that areas where
conceptual understanding is based on significant life experience, such as Temperature/Energy
and Rate/Amount, are more difficult to change with ‘typical
’ classes because instruction
challenges ideas that students have ‘known’ for a very long time; temperature and energy
misconceptions are documented for elementary school students. A direct challenge to their
misconceptions however, such as comes from the

unexpected results from the experiments in
Table 3, can have a more lasting impact on concepts than learning of the relevant equations. By
contrast, the area of Enthalpy/ Internal Energy typically requires a minimum of advanced high
school science in ord
er for students to form either correct or incorrect ideas about the subject at
all. Therefore, having less accumulated misunderstanding to correct, a greater level of success is
possible with typical class and with inquiry
based activities.


The area of
the Second Law/ Entropy is more complicated. While it would seem that, like the
Enthalpy/Internal Energy area, it requires significant STEM coursework to ‘achieve’ confusion,
misunderstanding of this concept is widespread. The Onion presented this as a s
atire, but it is
not far from comments printed more seriously in our local paper “’I wouldn't want my child
growing up in a world headed for total heat death and dissolution into a vacuum,’ said Kansas
state senator Will Blanchard (R
Hutchinson). ‘No decen
t parent would want that.’”
. The idea that systems wind
down and that one can’t extract as work out the energy that
one put in seems antithetical to the idea of working hard to get ahead. However, of all

concepts here, this one tends to receive the most direct and sustained attention during typical
coursework, which may explain why the gain with the addition of activities is not significant as
for the other areas.

Overall, the inquiry
based activities result in significant improvements in engineering students’
conceptual understanding in energy
related areas. This is particularly notable because these
measurements are taken at the end of the course, up to three mon
ths after the activities were
initially completed. The immediate post
activity understanding of the specific situation
presented within the activity is nearly 100%, based upon the long
answer post
questions asked as the ‘reflection’ component o
f the activity. This drops to the ~60% we see by
the end of the semester. So the changes appear to be relatively long
lived for a portion of the
population, a significant improvement that costs only ~20
40 minutes per concept area.
Overwhelmingly studen
ts written explanations turned in immediately after activities display
accurate understanding. The preservation of this understanding to the end of the semester is a
significant accomplishment.

Returning to the original question, “How should energy be taught”, we can endorse students’
active engagement and inquiry as key elements in developing long
term understanding, as has
been demonstrated in Physics
(Hake, 1998; Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)
. These
particular activities for Temperature/Energy and Rate/Amount could easily be adopted at the
school level. The current 2

Law / Entropy activities rely upon an understa
nding of ‘power
cycle’ that may or may not be present after high school physics. We would not recommend the
Enthalpy/Internal Energy activities at the high school level.

An ongoing challenge is expanding the number of heat transfer and thermodynamics c
using these activities. Hidden in the data is a resource problem; not all faculty who participated
in the study used all of the activities, for a variety of reasons. Our current work is examining
these reasons. Preliminary results suggest that pr
essures of space and money inhibit widespread
implementation of experimental activities; even small
scale activities require significant money
and laboratory space when run in classes with 100 students or more. Further, with downward
pressure on the numbe
r of credits students take, most courses of this type do not have dedicated
laboratory sessions; many faculty find it unreasonable to implement a 20 minute activity within a
52 minute lecture. Therefore, in our current work, we are redesigning activities
in several ways
to better accommodate faculty, and will be implementing and evaluating them to determine
whether making activities more faculty
friendly can maintain their instructional effectiveness.


The authors acknowledge the Nation
al Science Foundation for funding support DUE#

and #0717536; Ruth Streveler for help with the concept inventory development; and John


Pershetti for inspiration for the ‘filling’ activity. Also students: Jeff Detrich, Emily
Eherenberger, and Jeff S
tein for activity development and programming.



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