Teaching and Learning the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Jesper Haglund, Uppsala University, and Abigail R. Daane, Seattle Pacific University

We organized a Collaborative Group session on the topic of “Teaching and learning of the second law of thermodynamics”, as part of the 2015 Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research conference. The Collaborative Group included nine participants, representing a wide range of institutions:
  • Abigail R. Daane, Seattle Pacific University
  • Benjamin W. Dreyfus, University of Maryland
  • Paul Emigh, University of Washington
  • Benjamin D. Geller, Swarthmore College
  • Jesper Haglund, Uppsala University
  • Beth Lindsey, Penn State Greater Allegheny
  • David E. Meltzer, Arizona State University
  • Trevor I. Smith, Rowan University
  • John Thompson, University of Maine

The intended purpose of the session was to compare notes on teaching approaches, and to identify potential research opportunities in the area of the Second Law.

We found a great variety in instructional practices associated with the second law of thermodynamics, both in terms of scope and approach regarding the topic. At the University of Maryland, instructors have increased the emphasis on the second law in the physics course for life science students, starting off with Gibbs free energy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arizona State University has omitted the second law entirely in introductory physics courses. Our impression is that the second law of thermodynamics is one of the least standardized topics in introductory physics teaching.

One particular challenge in teaching and learning the second law is the abstract nature of the concept of entropy. There is no consensus about the “proper” way to introduce the concept of entropy. Some argue that if we cannot find a way to teach it that allows our students to be less confused upon leaving our courses than they were when they began, we should not teach it at the introductory level. On the other hand, students have many ideas about energy from their everyday lives, (e.g., sociopolitical or biophysical perspectives), which could be used productively in learning about the second law of thermodynamics.

Some participants suggested that introductory physics could incorporate ideas from engineering/biophysics/sociopolitical focuses on thermodynamics, such as the concept of exergy, free or available energy, and different efficiency measures, addressing practical and environmental implications of the second law of thermodynamics in a more qualitative way. As an example, students could investigate the inefficiency of heating their homes with direct electrical heating (basically a set of toasters wasting high quality energy).

Given the highly diverse range of teaching practices designed for learning about the second law of thermodynamics, there exists an opportunity to research the effectiveness of the different teaching approaches at the introductory and advanced levels across a variety of universities and colleges. However, the standardized concept inventories about thermodynamics are few, and the ones that are available are context specific. It may be difficult to compare the different populations because of their contrasting learning goals and desired outcomes.

Jesper Haglund is a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Uppsala University in Sweden. His primary research focus is on the teaching and learning of thermal science, particularly on the teaching and learning of entropy. In 2015, he helped to organize a special issue of the International Journal of Science Education on Conceptual Metaphor and Embodied Cognition in Science Learning.

Abigail Daane is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Seattle Pacific University. Her research focuses on K-12 teacher understanding of energy, particularly with respect to conceptual metaphor, energy dissipation, and energy degradation. Abigail has been an instructor for preservice teacher education courses and inservice teacher professional development. Previously, she served as a secondary science teacher.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.