Date of Award

2011

Level of Access

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Physics

Advisor

John R. Thompson

Second Committee Member

Donald B. Mountcastle

Third Committee Member

Michael C. Wittmann

Abstract

As part of an ongoing multi-university research study on student understanding of concepts in thermal physics at the upper division, I identified several student difficulties with topics related to heat engines (especially the Carnot cycle), as well as difficulties related to the Boltzmann factor. In an effort to address these difficulties, I developed two guided-inquiry worksheet activities (a.k.a. tutorials) for use in advanced undergraduate thermal physics courses. Both tutorials seek to improve student understanding of the utility and physical background of a particular mathematical expression. One tutorial focuses on a derivation of Carnot's theorem regarding the limit on thermodynamic efficiency, starting from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The other tutorial helps students gain an appreciation for the origin of the Boltzmann factor and when it is applicable; focusing on the physical justification of its mathematical derivation, with emphasis on the connections between probability, multiplicity, entropy, and energy. Student understanding of the use and physical implications of Carnot's theorem and the Boltzmann factor was assessed using written surveys both before and after tutorial instruction within the advanced thermal physics courses at the University of Maine and at other institutions. Classroom tutorial sessions at the University of Maine were videotaped to allow in-depth scrutiny of student successes and failures following tutorial prompts. I also interviewed students on various topics related to the Boltzmann factor to gain a more complete picture of their understanding and inform tutorial revisions. Results from several implementations of my tutorials at the University of Maine indicate that students did not have a robust understanding of these physical principles after lectures alone, and that they gain a better understanding of relevant topics after tutorial instruction; Fisher's exact tests yield statistically significant improvement at the = 0:05 level. Results from other schools indicate that difficulties observed before tutorial instruction in our classes (for both tutorials) are not unique, and that the Boltzmann factor tutorial can be an effective replacement for lecture instruction. Additional research is suggested that would further examine these difficulties and inform instructional strategies to help students overcome them.

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