Thermodynamics 101

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

The first time a new professor teaches a course, a lesson is always learned: sometimes by the students, always by the professor.

This is how the professor sees it. We stand in front of the class, confident and ready. We have spent years training in advanced scientific concepts. We have contributed to original research and scholarship. And we have the book—the textbook—for the course.

We advance to the blackboard with our chalk, or flip on our laptops containing our PowerPoint presentation, and begin. Things go fine for a few minutes or a lecture or two, and then a student asks, “Why?”

And another student asks, “How?”

As nervous sweat appears on our professorial foreheads, we think, “That’s what the book says.”

If we are particularly foolish, we tell the students that. Because then the student says,  “So?”

This was my own humbling experience teaching thermodynamics for the first time.

That is when things start to go bad, or rather start to go good, as we the professors learn a lesson.

The students want to be convinced, not told. Science is not about deferring to an authoritative figure who has written, or carefully read, some special book.

Convincing is what science is all about.  In science, an idea’s correctness is not determined by who proposes it.

In science, an idea’s correctness can be argued and tested so that rational people are convinced.

One way the Faculty of Science works to improve the quality of our teaching is through the Tomlinson Project in University-Level Education, established through a generous gift from Dr. Richard Tomlinson.

More information on T-PULSE’s activities, under the effective and energetic leadership of the Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, Brian Alters, is available here: http://www.mcgill.ca/science/tpulse/.

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