Towards a Probabilistic Definition of Entropy: An Investigation of the effects of a New Curriculum on Students' Understanding of Thermodynamics

Evy Colon-Garcia, Clemson University


Thermodynamics is a vital tool in understanding why reactions happen; nevertheless, it is often considered a difficult topic. Prior studies have shown that students struggle with fundamental thermodynamic concepts such as entropy, enthalpy and Gibbs energy even in upper level physical chemistry courses. Thermodynamics, as a general chemistry topic, can be more math-intensive than other topics such as bonding or intermolecular forces. As a result, it is possible for students to get lost in the algorithms and overlook the important underlying theoretical concepts. Students' difficulties in understanding thermodynamics may be contributing to their inability to explain phenomena such as phase changes and manipulations of equilibrium systems. Current chemistry curricula split the thermodynamic chapters over a span of two semesters as well as splitting it over different units. This division fails to make explicit the connection between Enthalpy, Entropy and Gibbs Energy and how they affect how and why every reaction or process happens. The reason for this division of topics is not based on any educational research rather than opinions as to what will not overwhelm the students. Additionally, students who take only one semester of General Chemistry will leave without being instructed in what is considered to be one of the most fundamental concepts in Chemistry, Thermodynamics. Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything (CLUE) is a general chemistry course developed with the explicit goal of addressing the major obstacles that inhibit students from acquiring an appreciation and mastery of the chemical principles upon which other sciences depend. Using a control and treatment group, the effectiveness of this new curriculum was evaluated for two main aspects: 1. What is students' understanding of entropy?, 2. Can an alternative instructional approach to teaching Thermodynamics (Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything - CLUE) improve students' understanding of Entropy (the ability to understand how it affects processes and apply it to different situations)? An additional research study was done to study the effects of an interactive activity on students' understanding of thermodynamic phenomena. Through a longitudinal study we found that the CLUE curriculum allows students to not only understand thermodynamic phenomena and use probabilistic definitions to explain why different thermodynamic phenomena occur but that the students in this curriculum maintain their knowledge of this concept several semesters after being taught these particular concepts.