Reflecting on Thermodynamics - Content and Process

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Students will look back at this unit on Thermodynamics and self-assess their understandings.

Big Idea

We set aside time to reflect upon our learning.


Today's lesson is the final lesson of the Thermodynamics unit. Part of the lesson is devoted to transitioning from this unit to the next ("Electrostatics") through the examination of particles on the molecular and atomic scales. In addition, I provide some time for my students to respond to some of the most essential questions of this unit. Students have not been prepared for this set of questions, other than through their day-to-day work. As such, their responses will only be graded for completion.  


20 minutes

Today's warmup provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of our recent work in calorimetry. A challenge for teachers, of course, is to vary problems over time to stimulate student thinking and to avoid a sense of "mental inertia" where students reflexively respond to familiar problems. Today's problem is an attempt to create a novel situation where no new knowledge is needed, just an ability to extend previous knowledge.

The problem features more than one object being mixed into a calorimetry water bath. With multiple items being mixed together, students need to extend the concept of energy conservation to be successful. In addition, they are asked to limit their answer to an appropriate number of significant digits. This problem does not demand much new of students but is a good opportunity to see if they can be agile enough to include all the physical elements.

I give the students 4-5 minutes to work on this and, if necessary, supply suggestions for those students who seem stuck. The final discussion of this problem can proceed quickly, once students see the way that each element can be factored into the solution. Indeed, I try NOT to get too deep into the algebraic solution; once I provide the physics set-up (the way in which all four terms are included in the solution), I ask students to provide me with the intermediate calculations and work quickly to the final answer. The value of this problem, at this point in the unit, is overwhelmingly in the first two steps with little to learn beyond that.

Kinetic Theory Exercise

30 minutes

In the previous lesson, we filled out the first page of the Kinetic Theory notes and images.  I asked for qualitative language to describe the bonding, spacing, and movements of the molecules in three states of matter. I also probed their understanding of what happens when more energy is added to a substance.

For today's exercise to work it is imperative that I not describe the nature of the bonds. I ask students to illustrate with solids and liquids "what is happening between the molecules." I anticipate they'll draw springs or arrows or links, and that these drawings will look different between the solid and liquid drawings (pages 2 and 3 of the handout). As we move from solids to liquids to gases, I prompt students to think about what happens to their model (say, solids) when more energy is added to the object. In this way, we connect back to the ideas of this unit on thermodynamics.

After illustrating their copy, students share with one another and then share with the class. I have one or two students come to board and draw their models, as a way to appreciate the ways in which the bonds can be considered. After some time, I ask them to adapt their model to gases, based on the bonding, spacing, and movement notes from the first page.  

My goal in this segment is to have students access their thinking about the nature of these bonds - and how these bonds are altered with increases in thermal energy - without simply telling them.  I think it's important for students to get their models out of their minds and onto paper for sharing and evaluation. After sharing, I think students will be ready to consider the idea of small but vital electric forces that bind molecules together. Those electric forces are, naturally, the result of charges and both electric forces and charges will be the main topic of the next unit.

Reflection on Thermodynamics

30 minutes

As we finish our study of thermodynamics, I look for an opportunity to capture student understanding in a formative setting. I have decided to assess this way, as opposed to the more traditional testing approach, for several reasons. First, I have already collected many samples of summative student work throughout the unit. Second, I value the conceptual understanding at least as much as a computational demonstration of knowledge. Indeed, there have been times when students have been able to perform the calculations without truly understanding the physical principles involved. 

To accomplish this, I ask students to address a short set of Thermodynamics Essential Questions, using a Google form for submission. Their responses will be recorded directly into a spreadsheet for me to read and evaluate at another time. Their responses are not graded but provide me with a rich data set to reflect upon the success of the unit. Finally, though the responses are not graded, I do record a small participatory grade for all completed questionnaires, so students provide their names for that purpose.

As a means to alter mood, I reserve time in the library for students to complete this task. In addition to the change of scenery, the library offers a sufficient bank of computers for students to complete this task. Furthermore, I share with my students that this is the final activity for our unit on thermodynamics. We take the remainder of class time to access and complete these questions.

I have provided screenshots of the questions called thermodynamic essential questions part 1 and thermodynamic essential questions part 2. In addition, the entire set of student responses is provided.