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Tuesday, July 2 • 2:15pm - 2:55pm
Using Lego and Semantics to mediate the conceptual grasp of Thermodynamics

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The first law of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy) is often confusing to students, partly due to the intangible nature of energy itself, and partly due to its apparently obscure description in terms of mathematical equations. The majority of second year engineering students do not appear to understand that the mathematical objects and their operators constituted in complex equations make up individual parts, with each part representing a physical reality. In other words, students are not well versed in mathematical semantics.

The Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) dimension of Semantics helps to differentiate between different forms of conceptual meaning and different levels of complexity. Together, the semantic gravity (SG) and semantic density (SD) continua as represented on the semantic plane can help to illuminate the nature of thermodynamics concepts in science and engineering education. Researchers in these fields using LCT have already begun to make a notable contribution to understanding and improving educational practices designed to address poor South African student performance (CHE, 2013) in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

This paper showcases an intervention in a second-year engineering course at a traditional, research-intensive institution. Based on the use of Lego blocks, and informed by LCT Semantics, a tutorialised game was devised to enhance student understanding of mathematical equations in thermodynamics, and enhance lecturer understanding of student learning. Many of the abstract aspects of energy and its mathematical formulation can be understood by representing the energy of an ideal gas as a cube in three-dimensional space. The various dimensions, areas and volumes of the cube represent different physical properties. By interacting with a tangible and deformable cube, students can learn about key concepts such as intensive- and extensive variables, integration and differentiation, work and heat transfer. The Lego Conceptual Comprehension Cube for Thermodynamics or ‘LC3T’ maintains the stronger semantic density (SD+) of a mathematical equation but greatly strengthens its semantic gravity (SG+), enabling students to ground their understanding of the concepts.

Students were given the opportunity to partake in a voluntary ‘intervention’ where fundamental concepts were explored using the LC3T system. Only a subset of the class attended, and the performance of students attending was compared to the students who did not attend. Further qualitative data were gathered from lecturer observation notes, student feedback and key assessment responses. These data (as well as the theoretical concepts entailed in Thermodynamics) were interpreted using the semantic plane, and analysed to illustrate the stages of student engagement with the LC3T as well as shifts in student conceptions.

Results indicate that students who attended showed a marginal but statistically significant (p=0.06) improvement in performance in the first major assessment. However, student feedback suggests that students did not perceive the impact of the intervention to be significant. The intervention did, however, provide the lecturer with unique insights regarding student learning in thermodynamics, revealing additional unidentified challenges to student learning. The LC3T represented a game to students where the rules of the science were embedded in the experience of the game. The intervention allowed the identification of key properties of a successful translation or mediation device for learning in the sciences, these being self-evidence, emergence, and testability. The paper hopes to make a contribution to strategies for operationalising LCT concepts in the field of STEM learning.

Tuesday July 2, 2019 2:15pm - 2:55pm SAST
Room B46

Attendees (8)