Quick: define the word temperature. Can't do it? Neither can most people, including college students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

"It's the same with the word energy," says Mike Prince, professor of chemical engineering. "The definitions aren't on the tip of your tongue, but for STEM students, they should be. These are critical concepts."

A leading scholar in the field of engineering education, Prince is collaborating with Professor of Education Katharyn Nottis and Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Margot Vigeant, who also serves as associate dean in the College of Engineering, on a project that promises to improve STEM education. The team has developed simple experiments that burst students' misconceptions and provoke them to understand the correct meaning of terms and principles.

It's a matter of "rewiring," says Vigeant. For instance, students often confuse how fast a temperature-related event happens with how much it happens. Consider cooling a drink with the same mass of crushed ice versus ice cubes. "People often think crushed ice cools a drink more," says Vigeant. To correct this misconception, the professors have students dump two equal amounts of ice — one portion crushed, one portion cubed — into drinks and measure the temperature. "The crushed ice has a greater surface area, so it melts faster and cools faster," says Vigeant. "But it doesn't cool the drink any more than the ice cube."

These kinds of teaching models can improve STEM education if they can be widely implemented, says Prince. On the team's assessments, the Bucknell students who have participated in the experiments score significantly higher than those who haven't.

The problem is that professors at other schools don't always have the time, space or funds to do the experiments as they've been designed. So for the next phase of their work, Prince, Nottis, Vigeant and a colleague from Oregon State University are working on ways to overcome such limitations. Backed by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, they will develop and test alternatives to their exercises.

"We have the potential to impact lots and lots of people," says Prince.

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