Problem-solving in thermodynamics

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSUDuring November and December I was handing out a sheet of problems every week in my first-year undergraduate thermodynamics class so that students could evaluate and refine their understanding and problem-solving skills as the course progressed. Of course, most students will not have done this and those problem sheets will have been part of their list of good intentions, which have now become part of their revision schedule. Well, perhaps?  Anyway, to help them is attached ‘Professor Patterson’s Patented Problem-solving Procedure (PPPPP)’ for entry-level thermodynamics problems.

PPPPP is written in the context of thermodynamics but actually it is what engineers tend to do when faced with analysis problems, i.e. draw a sketch including all the known information, identify some simplifying assumptions then apply and solve the relevant physical laws. There is plenty of research that shows most of us are visual problem-solvers [e.g. Martin & Schwartz, 2014] but it is remarkably difficult to persuade people to summarize a problem pictorially.  It takes practice and that’s why we give students lots of problems on which to hone their skills.

See my post entitled ‘Love an engineer‘ on September 24th, 2014 for about creative problem-solving engineers.  Or ‘Mind wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014.


Martin, L., & Schwartz, D.,  2014, ‘A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking’, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93.

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

5 thoughts on “Problem-solving in thermodynamics

  1. Peter Goodhew

    As is so common with sets of instructions, I would fall at the the second hurdle: “Draw a system boundary”. I am immediately wondering; is there only one? (the word “a” implies that there might be several); If there are many possibilities, does it matter which I draw?

    Note to self and ProfP: It is very hard to write unequivocal yet simple instructions!

  2. eannpatterson Post author

    My instructions are designed to be simple steps to memorise and use in an examination. At the same time it is assumed that anyone getting as far as attempting to use them has been following a first course in thermodynamics and so is not attempting to solve a thermodynamics problem for the first time. Unlike assembling that flat-packed furniture you just bought from your local hyper-market!

    For more thoughts on system boundaries see my earlier posts entitled ‘Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter? on December 10th, 2014, or ‘Closed systems in nature?’ in December 21st, 2012. For more on Thermodynamics, just hit the word in the topic cloud!

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