Category Archives: Thermodynamics

Blended learning environments

This is the last in the series of posts on Creating A Learning Environment (CALE).  The series has been based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell [of Campbell-Kibler Associates] and me in the UK and USA, except for the last one on ‘Learning problem-solving skills’ on October 24th, 2018 which was derived on talks I gave to students and staff in Liverpool.  In all of these posts, the focus has been on traditional forms of learning environments; however, almost everything that I have described can be transferred to a virtual learning environment, which is what I have done in the two MOOCs [see ‘Engaging learners on-line’ on May 25th, 2016 and ‘Slowing down time to think (about strain energy)’ on March 8th, 2017].

You can illustrate a much wider range of Everyday Engineering Examples on video than is viable in a lecture theatre.  So, for instance, I used my shower to engage the learners and to introduce a little statistical thermodynamics and explain how we can consider the average behaviour of a myriad of atoms.  However, it is not possible to progress through 5Es [see ‘Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate’ on August 1st, 2018] in a single step of a MOOC; so, instead I used a step (or sometimes two steps) of the MOOC to address each ‘E’ and cycled around the 5Es about twice per week.  This approach provides an effective structure for the MOOC which appears to have been a significant factor in achieving higher completion rates than in most MOOCs.

In the MOOC, I extended the Everyday Engineering Example concept into experiments set as homework assignments using kitchen equipment.  For instance, in one lab students were asked to measure the efficiency of their kettle.  In another innovation, we developed Clear Screen Technology to allow me to talk to the audience while solving a worked example.  In the photo below, I am calculating the Gibbs energy in the tank of a compressed air powered car in the final week of the MOOC [where we began to transition to more sophisticated examples].

Last academic year, I blended the MOOC on thermodynamics with my traditional first year module by removing half the lectures, the laboratory classes and worked example classes from the module.  They were replaced by the video shorts, homework labs and Clear Screen Technology worked examples respectively from the MOOC.  The results were positive with an increased attendence at lectures and an improved performance in the examination; although some students did not like and did not engage with the on-line material.

Photographs are stills from the MOOC ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life’.

CALE #10 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA] – although this post is based on recent experience in developing and delivering a MOOC integrated with traditional learning environments.

Creating an evolving learning environment

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about marking examinations and my tendency to focus on the students that I had failed to teach rather than those who excelled in their knowledge of problem-solving with the laws of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  One correspondent suggested that I shouldn’t beat myself up because ‘to teach is to show, to learn is to acquire‘; and that I had not failed to show but that some of my students had failed to acquire.  However, Adams and Felder have stated that the ‘educational role of faculty is not to impart knowledge; but to design learning environments that support knowledge acquisition‘.  My despondency arises from my apparent inability to create a learning environment that supports and encourages knowledge acquisition for all of my students.  People arrive in my class with a variety of formative experiences and different ways of learning, which makes it challenging to generate a learning environment that is effective for everyone.   It’s an on-going challenge due to the ever-widening cultural gap between students and their professors, which is large enough to have warranted at least one anthropological study (see My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan). So, my focus on the weaker exam scripts has a positive outcome because it causes me to think about evolving the learning environment.


Adams RS, Felder RM, Reframing professional development: A systems approach to preparing engineering educators to educate tomorrow’s engineers. J. Engineering Education, 97(3):230-240, 2008.

Nathan R, My freshman year: what a professor learned by becoming a student, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2005

Depressed by exams

I am not feeling very creative this week, because I am in middle of marking examination scripts; so, this post is going to be short.  I have 20 days to grade at least 1100 questions and award a maximum of 28,400 marks – that’s a lot of decisions for my neurons to handle without being asked to find new ways to network and generate original thoughts for this blog [see my post on ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].

It is a depressing task discovering how little I have managed to teach students about thermodynamics, or maybe I should say, how little they have learned.  However, I suspect these feelings are a consequence of the asymmetry of my brain, which has many more sites capable of attributing blame and only one for assigning praise [see my post entitled ‘Happenstance, not engineering‘ on November 9th, 2016].  So, I tend to focus on the performance of the students at the lower end of the spectrum rather than the stars who spot the elegant solutions to the exam problems.


Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.

Entropy on the brain

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Again.  That’s the things about things.  They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.’  They are the opening three lines of Ali Smith’s novel ‘Autumn’.  Ali Smith doesn’t mention entropy but that’s what she is describing.

My first-year lecture course has progressed from the first law of thermodynamics to the second law; and so, I have been stretching the students’ brains by talking about entropy.  It’s a favourite topic of mine but many people find it difficult.  Entropy can be described as the level of disorder present in a system or the environment.  Ludwig Boltzmann derived his famous equation, S=k ln W, which can be found on his gravestone – he died in 1906.  S is entropy, k is a constant of proportionality named after Boltzmann, and W is the number of arrangements in which a system can be arranged without changing its energy content (ln means natural logarithm).  So, the more arrangements that are possible then the larger is the entropy.

By now the neurons in your brain should be firing away nicely with a good level of synchronicity (see my post entitled ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016 and ‘Is the world comprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017).  In other words, groups of neurons should be showing electrical activity that is in phase with other groups to form large networks.  Some scientists believe that the size of the network was indicative of the level of your consciousness.  However, scientists in Toronto led by Jose Luis Perez-Velazquez, have suggested that it is not the size of the network that is linked to consciousness but the number of ways that a particular degree of connectivity can be achieved.  This begins to sound like the entropy of your neurons.

In 1948 Claude Shannon, an American electrical engineer, stated that ‘information must be considered as a negative term in the entropy of the system; in short, information is negentropy‘. We can extend this idea to the concept that the entropy associated with information becomes lower as it is arranged, or ordered, into knowledge frameworks, e.g. laws and principles, that allow us to explain phenomena or behaviour.

Perhaps these ideas about entropy of information and neurons are connected; because when you have mastered a knowledge framework for a topic, such as the laws of thermodynamics, you need to deploy a small number of neurons to understand new information associated with that topic.  However, when you are presented with unfamiliar situations then you need to fire multiple networks of neurons and try out millions of ways of connecting them, in order to understand the unfamiliar data being supplied by your senses.

For diverse posts on entropy see: ‘Entropy in poetry‘ on June 1st, 2016; ‘Entropy management for bees and flights‘ on November 5th, 2014; and ‘More on white dwarfs and existentialism‘ on November 16th, 2016.


Ali Smith, Autumn, Penguin Books, 2017

Consciousness is tied to ‘entropy’, say researchers, Physics World, October 16th, 2016.

Handscombe RD & Patterson EA, The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2004.