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Calorimetry: Pedagogy and Philosophy

# Calorimetry: Pedagogy and Philosophy

Calorimetry is an easy part of chemistry — one that is made difficult. Everybody knows how ice turns into steam: ice warms up, it melts into water, the water warms up, the water turns into steam, then the steam warms up. If you don’t know it, then get some ice cubes, put them in a pan on the stove top, turn up the heat, and watch what happens.
Those are the only five steps we need to consider in these types of problems. Then all we must do is see which of the five steps comes up in a given word problem. Easy.
Once you know the reality perceptually, and have identified the steps in words, then you can imagine the process and think about it forever more. Just simply use that process to guide you in doing word problems. You tell from the word problem where in the imagined process to jump in:
“What is the starting point in this problem? Ice is at -50°, below its melting point. Where do I start in the process? Ah. At the beginning, step one.”
“What is the starting point in this process? Well, all I have is some ice. No temperature specified, so clearly we just need to melt the ice. So I start by melting the ice, in step 2, then go from there.”
“What is the endpoint of this process? The word problem says I need to end up with water at 40°C. Okay, so I keep going until step four.”
Then all you have to do is some simple math.

When doing problems about things other than water, remember that ice is a solid, water is a liquid, and steam is a gas. And, for comparison purposes, remember that water freezes/melts at 0ºC and evaporates/condenses at 100ºC.
Part of the problem with understanding calorimetry lies in students and teachers having a poor view of concepts or ignorance about concepts  and their relationship to reality. When understanding thermodynamics, we should not get carried away with more focused on only the paperwork. Or on the seemingly arbitrary problems we are given. We should think about what things are doing in the real world and our concepts should reflect that. Concepts and perception are about the world “out there,” not about some “world of words” or “world of symbols.” Students have so many words and symbols flying around in their head and have nothing but them — all a real blooming, buzzing confusion in a mental fog — they cannot see the easy path right there. Think about ice, water, steam in the real world. That is what you are working on understanding. Words on paper are not you object of understanding. They are your means of understanding — understanding the world. Apply your concepts and words to real things in the real world.

Takes a certain level of knowledge and awareness to grasp the concept of concept, and even more to get it right. I sure the heck would not have gotten their nature and essence on my own. Nor have many, many people in history. When we stand on the shoulders of giants like Hippocrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, Rand, then we can see what concepts are, and know that it is important to have some understanding of them.

Note also the importance of asking questions here. Asking questions of yourself. Questions that drive your thinking in the privacy of your own mind. This is not arbitrary “brainstorming” as is done too much in schools. This is a directed, objective question and answer session.

But we have still left a lot unsaid. This whole ice melting thing has to be integrated into the total of a student’s knowledge and values, and has to be motivated. Why is it important? How does it help in life to know this? How is it related to chemical reactions? How is it related to atomic theory? How is it related to cooking? How is it related to the expansion of metals? To the function of an engine?