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Representations of partial derivatives in thermodynamics Documents

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Representations of partial derivatives in thermodynamics 

written by John R. Thompson, Corinne A. Manogue, David J. Roundy, and Donald B. Mountcastle

One of the mathematical objects that students become familiar with in thermodynamics, often for the first time, is the partial derivative of a multivariable function. The symbolic representation of a partial derivative and related quantities present difficulties for students in both mathematical and physical contexts, most notably what it means to keep one or more variables fixed while taking the derivative with respect to a different variable. Material properties are themselves written as partial derivatives of various state functions (e.g., compressibility is a partial derivative of volume with respect to pressure). Research in courses at the University of Maine and Oregon State University yields findings related to the many ways that partial derivatives can be represented and interpreted in thermodynamics. Research has informed curricular development that elicits many of the difficulties using different representations (e.g., geometric) and different contexts (e.g., connecting partial derivatives to specific experiments).

Published February 6, 2012
Last Modified April 24, 2012

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