Thermodynamics and the underlying statistical picture of random molecular motions are fundamental in biology. In order to make sense of processes ranging from respiration and photosynthesis in the cell to the survival and stabilization of ecosystems students need a good understanding of energy, its conservation, its availability, and its transformation. Since biology is about the generation, maintenance, and evolution of organization and structure, the concept of information and its statistical mechanical partner, entropy, is critical. Students typically encounter energy, enthalpy, and entropy in introductory biology, chemistry, and physics classes. But the approach taken in the three disciplines can be dramatically different. Often, they make different (unstated) assumptions resulting in statements of the laws of thermodynamics that look different in different classes. This lack of consistency raises barriers to students' development of a coherent understanding of these important ideas.
In this project, we work with an interdisciplinary group of physicists, chemists, and biologists at four universities to (1) come to an agreement on a common content and representational scheme; (2) create a literature survey bringing together results about student understanding of concepts in thermodynamics from chemistry, biology, and physics education research; (3) study student understandings of and attitudes about the basic concepts of energy, entropy, diffusion, and stochastic processes; (4) create web materials including text and materials for active-learning instruction for use in an introductory physics course for biologists; and (5) create and validate an instrument to evaluate students' learning gains on these topics.