David Goggins, ex-Navy SEAL, now ultra-athlete and motivational speaker, shared in a popular YouTube video (JRE #1212) something that I found incredibly motivating. His biggest fear, and I paraphrase here, is that he arrives at the gates of Heaven and sees God there with a clipboard, holding a list of many great accomplishments. Goggins’ fear is that he looks at this list and says to God, “But that’s not me. I didn’t do those things,” and the all-knowing God replies, “That’s correct. That’s who you could have been. This is a list of all those things you were capable of doing.”
What does Goggins have to do with thermodynamics and, more generally, the subject of education? Nothing and everything. While he has accomplished much in his life, I’m not sure he ever turned his eyes toward thermodynamics. But that’s not the point here. My point is the provocative question that rises from Goggins’ fear. How many students graduate from K-12, college, or grad school without having achieved what they are capable of? How many graduate with a significant gap between who they are and who they could have been? As I recently shared (video here), my short answer for the specific world of university-level thermodynamics is, “too many.” This is unacceptable.
To this end, I believe that each and every university student enrolled in a thermodynamics course is capable of graduating from that course with a solid understanding of thermodynamics. So why isn’t this happening? To me, one of the major reasons lies in the first rung of the multi-step education process: the teacher must understand the material. I don’t believe this is happening for the simple reason that we as educators don’t fully understand thermodynamics.
“The deepest understanding of thermodynamics comes, of course, from understanding the actual machinery underneath.” – Richard Feynman
The understanding I’m referring to is not with the thermodynamic equations and their use to solve problems. The majority of teachers and textbooks already do a very good job teaching this material. What I’m referring to instead is the deep understanding of what the equations physically mean. We simply aren’t there yet as best manifested by the fact that there is no single textbook I’m aware of that presents a physical explanation of thermodynamics based on the motions and interactions of atoms and molecules. Because of this, students learn the equations without understanding what they mean and end up viewing thermodynamics as an indecipherable black box, leaving them intimidated by and so hesitant to use this powerful science. This is their loss as they fall short of who they could be, and this is society’s loss as real-world problems remain unsolved.
The opportunity exists to create a thermodynamics curriculum based on atoms. Employing such an “atoms first” approach will enable students to better learn, better understand, and more confidently employ thermodynamics in a proactive and creative way. The challenge in front of us is to develop this curriculum. Most of the material is already out there in the pages of books and journals and in the minds of many. It needs to be assimilated into one single place. And some of the material remains to be discovered. If students are to reach their full capabilities, we need to gather and create, where needed, this content. This is the task in front of us. Time to start.