Students’ Transfer of First Law Concepts Across Engineering and Science Discipline-Specific Contexts

Alexander Parobek
Graduate Student
Purdue University

Need.A national call has been made to develop and support integrated models of STEM education to meet the demands of a growing and increasingly interdisciplinary STEM workforce. Effective development and implementation of integrated STEM instruction demands a recognition for what topics span across disciplines. The Next Generation Science Standards outlines the “crosscutting concepts” as the common tools and lenses that students use to bridge across the boundaries of STEM. Despite the importance of the crosscutting concepts to multidisciplinary instruction and design, little work has been conducted to date to characterize students’ conceptualization of crosscutting concepts and to develop serviceable implications to practitioners on how to approach crosscutting concepts within the classroom. To begin to address this gap, a qualitative research study was undertaken to investigate chemistry, engineering, and physics students’ conceptualization of the first law of thermodynamics when problem solving. The first law was chosen based upon the essential role this principle plays for the crosscutting concept of “energy and matter.” Guiding Question.The applied methods and analysis were structured by the student-centered lens of the dynamic transfer framework to address the guiding research question of this study: “How do chemistry, engineering, and physics students frame the first law of thermodynamics when addressing discipline-specific first law problems?”Outcomes.Emergent findings revealed three distinct epistemological framings of the first law of thermodynamics within a problem-solving setting. These different epistemological framings may be understood to structure the three unique reasoning approaches that were identified: direction-oriented (DOR), magnitude-oriented (MOR), and process-oriented reasoning (POR). Engineering students were found to prefer framing the first law as an equation, while chemistry and physics students relied more heavily on POR. Interestingly, engineering students’ responses were marked with distinct shifts between epistemological frames in apparent moments of cognitive dissonance when addressing the conceptual nature of the provided interview prompts. Classroom observations performed in each course studied revealed that these trends map onto the different instructional methods used to contextualize and apply the first law of thermodynamics.Broader Impacts.The identified field-specific epistemological framings of the first law may serve as crucial points of consideration for practitioners that teach the first law of thermodynamics in a discipline-specific setting. Addressing the crosscutting concept of energy and matter in an interdisciplinary manner requires an appreciation for what productive lenses may be used to contextualize and apply the first law across the different disciplines of STEM. Therefore, we suggest that building and applying these epistemological frames should be course objectives for those classes seeking to effectively implement integrated STEM instruction. Additionally, the applied research methods provide a novel approach to investigating students’ conceptualization of crosscutting concepts. Future characterization of crosscutting concepts through the lens of the dynamic transfer framework may provide further insight into disciplinary epistemology and inform the development of integrated STEM curricula.


Alexander P. Parobek, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN; Patrick M. Chaffin , Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN; Marcy H. Towns, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN