An undergraduate course in thermodynamics (engineering, physics, chemistry)

1:30 – 3:00 MW

ES&T L1116

Professor Judith A. Curry (
Email is the preferred mode of contact

Thermodynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans, by Curry and Webster


Worksheets/Homework - 15%
Exam I - 20%
Exam II - 20%
Exam III - 20%
Term Paper - 25%

Course Objectives and Philosophy of Learning/Teaching

The objective of this course is to apply thermodynamic principles to understanding water in all of its manifestations in the atmosphere and ocean, and to understand its role in the Earth’s climate system. The goal of the course is to provide a broad conceptual framework for understanding the thermodynamics of oceans and atmospheres, so students have the foundation for further learning on the topic and the basis for integrating this topic into other subject areas that they are learning about.

The subject matter of the course matches closely the material in the text Thermodynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans. Optional readings are provided on the course web page from the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Science and the Encyclopedia of Ocean Science to provide further background and to illustrate the applications of thermodynamics to the atmosphere and ocean. Web links are also provided with information on observations, measurements, and models of relevance to each chapter in the text.

Students are expected to read the assigned material before class. Less than half of the class time is used for lecturing, and no attempt is made in the lectures to go over all of this material in detail. I use a "collaborative learning" approach to teaching that integrates conceptual and operational knowledge, where students working in teams use class time for worksheets that include quizzes, problem-solving, discussions, and web-based explorations. Homework assignments will consist of completing the worksheets for the next class period. Students are expected to work in teams on the worksheets (both in class and homework).

My motivation for giving tests goes beyond evaluating the students. Students need to integrate the material from the course as a whole, not just respond to each lecture or each homework assignment as it comes. Studying for the test largely accomplishes this integration, by looking over and integrating the past material; it also reinforces their long-term memory for the material. For the test itself, I attempt to test the student’s ability to integrate the concepts from the course (leave your calculators at home on test day). I never give in-class open-book exams because there is the tendency for the student to adopt the “recipe” approach rather than to understand the material.

A term project is required for the course. Depending on the student’s interest, this project may be a library research paper or a small-scale original research project. About 50% of the past students in this class have done a research project. I view this project to be important for a several reasons. First, the students are able to use the background that they have gained from the course to delve deeply into a topic, allowing them to get some depth in a specific area. More importantly, the process of doing the project helps students “learn how to learn” on their own, and gets them immersed in the primary literature. I think that students need to develop experience in formulating their own research problems and questions to address, before they attempt to identify a PhD thesis topic. Students also need as much experience as possible in technical writing.

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