The Art of Thermodynamics

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Professor Heather Dillon integrates science and art in the classroom by inviting students to create artworks that illustrate concepts in thermodynamics.

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From a paper presented by Heather Dillon, Professor, UW Tacoma School of Engineering & Technology...

"Thermodynamics in the Arts," 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, IN, 2014

"Thermodynamics is a difficult course for many undergraduate students due in part to the complexnature of the concepts learned. Pedagogical literature has suggested that students learn difficult concepts better when they are presented in different formats that address different learning styles (verbal, visual, etc). During the last two years a new student project called 'Thermodynamics in the Arts' has challenged students in an introductory thermodynamics course to represent one thermodynamic concept in an art project. Each team of students selected a thermodynamic concept and a different art medium including poetry, sculpture, music, painting, drawing, photography, and creative essays. Concepts the students visualized included entropy, enthalpy, irreversibility, exergy, phase change, Carnot cycle, Brayton cycle, internal energy, work, radiation, convection,and conduction.

"Assessment of the artwork used a rubric that included artistic merit, but also the accuracy of thethermodynamic concept explored. A survey of the participating students was conducted to determine if the intersection of art and thermodynamics helped the students construct more concrete understanding of the concepts chosen. This paper explores the student perceptions of the project, presents examples of the student art projects, and provides an overview of the pedagogical merits of the project. Student survey results strongly support keeping the project for future classes. Student art examples demonstrate the success of the project and a nuanced depth of conceptualunderstanding of the material."

Below are some of the examples of student art created to illustrate thermodynamic principles.

Thermodynamics in the Arts: Fireworks, by Caroline Pisani and Audre Ramey

Title: Fireworks
Artists: Caroline Pisani and Audre Ramey
Discussion: "A team of students worked to create time lapse images with a thermodynamics theme using sparklers as shown above. The students included a discussion about the thermodynamics of a combustion process, the heat produced, and the way the pictures were created."

Thermodynamics in the Arts: Table of tables, by Andrew Stacey and Bruce Julian.

Title: Table of Tables
Artists: Andrew Stacey and Bruce Julian
Discussion: "A student group used copies of the thermodynamics steam tables to construct a small table. This sculpture was titled Table of Tables and was a clear favorite with the other students in the class. This project was a good example of another theme in the art projects, the use of irony or humor. The piece is ironic because the thermodynamics class requires extensive property look-ups using the appendix of the textbook, often called the “steam tables”. By constructing a table from the steam tables the students captured a humorous reference."

Thermodynamics in the Arts: Carnot’s Cube by Jonathan Harper and Alvaro Garay.

Title: Carnot's Cube
Artists: Jonathan Harper and Alvaro Garay
Discussion: "This team of students repainted a puzzle cube. Each side of the cube represents a different process in a Carnot cycle. The top and bottom of the cube represent the hot and cold reservoir for the cycle. The students were inspired by the perfect square shape representing the Carnot cycle on a Temperature-Entropy phase diagram."

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February 26, 2021
Photos by: 
Photos courtesy Heather Dillon
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or