423897 Combining Interactive Thermodynamics Simulations with Screencasts and Conceptests

Tuesday, November 10, 2015: 12:30 PM
Alpine East (Hilton Salt Lake City Center)
John L. Falconer, Nathan Nelson, Katherine McDanel, Rachael Baumann and Michelle Medlin, Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO

More than 40 interactive Mathematica simulations were prepared for chemical engineering thermodynamics, and accompanying screencasts were prepared that explain how to use them. The primary purposes of the simulations are to clarify concepts and demonstrate how to use diagrams, and thus many of the simulations were incorporated into ConcepTests for use in class with student response systems. In class, students are asked to predict the behavior of a system before the simulation is shown in class. The simulations are also used by students on their own. An important objective is to make these simulations easy to use and as self-explanatory as possible, but the short screencasts were also prepared to help meet this objective.  Each simulation and its accompanying screencast are located on an individual web page on www.LearnChemE.com so that a simulation can be used while simultaneously viewing the screencast.

In the simulations, parameters are changed using sliders, and different configurations are also selected using buttons. The simulations display results as plots, bar graphs, animations, or phase plots where the state of the system can be selected with sliders or by moving a point with a mouse. Although these simulations were prepared using Mathematica, neither knowledge of Mathematica software nor a Mathematica license is required to use them.  The simulations show applications of the first and second law, examples of cycles, use diagrams to explain phase equilibrium for a single component, provide fugacity examples, calculate departure functions, and calculate chemical equilibria. They also calculate phase equilibrium for multi-component phase equilibrium including ideal, non-ideal, partially miscible, and immiscible mixtures. Examples of the simulations and their ConcepTests will be presented.

An effective method to demonstrate complex system behavior is to use interactive simulations, which allow the user to manipulate variables and receive instant feedback on how these changes affect the system. Because students manipulate the simulation at their own speed, fewer demands are placed on working memory and students can focus on understanding. [15] Interactive PhET simulations have been used extensively in physics education [10,11], and student interactions with simulations have been found to have positive effects on learning. [12,13,14] Podolefsky et al. [9] showed that they promote self-directed inquiry and exploration. Interactive simulations have the potential to increase student understanding by actively engaging students. Students can slow down or speed up processes so they can observe behavior that would be hard to observe in real time [8]. Wieman et al. [10] reported that students using one of the PhET simulations in an exercise had higher mastery of the concepts than students who did a laboratory exercise.

 We used some of the simulations in thermodynamics in fall 2014, and about 80% of the students were very positive (“the interactive simulations were the best thing that could even imagine”, “the interactive simulations are incredibly useful”, “Really liked the simulations. You should use more of these”). Some of the remaining 20% found them useful in some cases, but said they would be more useful if better explained. Rieber et al. [15] showed that students who were given interactive simulations with short explanation videos scored better than students who were given just interactive simulations.  That study and the student feedback provided the motivation for preparing screencasts that explained how to use the simulations.

More than 40 additional interactive Mathematica simulations have been prepared for other chemical engineering courses (kinetics, fluids, heat transfer), and they are available on http://www.learncheme.com/simulations and on the Wolfram Demonstration Project website (http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/).


1) Rieber, L. P., Tzeng, S. C. & Tribble, K. Discovery learning, representation, and explanation within a computer-based simulation: finding the right mix. Learn. Instr. 14, 307–323 (2004). 

2)  Wieman, C. E., Adams, W. K. & Perkins, K. K. PhET: simulations that enhance learning. Science. 322, 682–683 (2008).

3)  Wieman, C. E. & Perkins, K. K. A powerful tool for teaching science. Nat. Phys. 2, 290–292 (2006).

4) Bodemer, D., Ploetzner, R., Feuerlein, I. & Spada, H. The active integration of information during learning with dynamic and interactive visualisations. Learn. Instr. 14, 325–341 (2004).

5) Van der Meij, J. & de Jong, T. Supporting students’ learning with multiple representations in a dynamic simulation-based learning environment. Learn. Instr. 16, 199–212 (2006).

6) Kadiyala, M. & Crynes, B. L. A review of literature on effectiveness of information technology in education. J. Eng. Educ. 89, 33–37 (2000).

7)  Podolefsky, N. S., Perkins, K. K. & Adams, W. K. Factors promoting engaged exploration with computer simulations. Phys. Rev. Spec. Top. Phys. Educ. Res. 6, 020117 (2010).

8) N. Kober, Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, The National Academies Press, Washington D.C., (2015).

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