Liebenberg combines art with thermodynamics

5/23/2023 Lexi Larson

The final project for this semester's ME 200 course tasked students to utilize an art form to convey thermodynamics ideas and sustainable energy alternatives in an engaging way.

Written by Lexi Larson

Associate Teaching Professor Leon Liebenberg frequently leads the introductory thermodynamics course (ME 200). While he always incorporates creative aspects in his courses, this semester he asked something new of his students, and they rose to meet the challenge.

ME 200 Thermodynamics final presentation

His final project, titled “ART + THERMODYNAMICS to promote sustainable energy solutions,” tasked students to utilize an art form to convey thermodynamics ideas and sustainable energy alternatives in an engaging way. Having already completed a mandatory visit to the nearby Abbott Power Plant and with a few weeks of thermodynamics knowledge under their belt, Liebenberg’s students shared what they learned in transformative ways.

The display of students’ completed projects was incredible. From board games to large-scale models of the Rankine cycle, students let their creativity shine. Top projects included two interpretive dances, a CNN dupe video, and a graphic novel.

Interpretive dancer with her team.
Interpretive dance was part of one student team's final presentation. 

Sophomores Kaitlyn Uhlman, Marit Ley, Marshall Tenzer, and Olivia Hunsberger won first place by combining spoken word poetry and dance to make a chilling demand for immediate action for climate change. In their words, “There is no time to wait anymore.”

The idea to make an interpretive dance stemmed from a joke, as Ley mentioned to her team that she has danced all her life. One thing led to another, and Ley ended up choreographing a dance in her hometown studio to Tenzer’s original spoken word poem. Uhlman and Hunsberger added background voices after the dance was recorded, meaning that Ley had to perform in the studio without hearing Tenzer’s poem out loud. This initial challenge resulted in a raw dance performance.

“The biggest take away was the fundamental ideas – the various cycles, it’s all very basic in terms of analysis,” Tenzer reflected. “Thermodynamics is simple, but how do you make energy clean? Analyzing this aspect and how to pursue a better alternative is what’s most important for the future.”

Wally the Water Droplet
Team 33's "Wally the Water Droplet" story. 

Team 1 made a video that explains the Rankine cycle through dance. In Act I, each person was a part of the cycle. Act II demonstrated a theatrical fight between nuclear and dirty energy, with nuclear energy reigning victorious. “Our dance was inspired by fun to get people involved and make them want to learn about thermodynamics,” said team member Keyleigh Hanlon.  

Team 19 created a funny and informative “CNN” dupe. The interview follows a news reporter through their segment, starting at the Abbott Power Plant and moving to a local interview. The team’s biggest take away from the project “was how to simplify thermodynamics ideas,” said team member Joseph Symanski. “With a three-minute limit, the team “learned how to think about engineering outside the box.”

A Day in Walter's Life
Team 34's story "A Day in Walter's Life."

Team 33 illustrated the Rankine cycle using a comic book that tells the story of Wally the water droplet, who goes through the Rankine cycle and must fight emission particles. “This was a novel perspective of looking at the inside of the power plant,” Liebenberg said of the project. “If problem-solving is viewed as a change in representation, then this team and the class transformed thermodynamics theory to make obscure energy solutions more apparent.”  Read their story >>

Team 34 also focused on the Rankine cycle by painting the story of Walter Rankine. Walter gets a ride from Arnold Schwarzenegger to represent work going into the cycle, then eats a jalapeño to represent heat, and so on. The team’s story even offers ways to improve Walter’s life and the Abbott Power Plant to make the plant cleaner.  Read their story >>

Team 35 utilized blender animation software to create an impressive video animation of the Rankine cycle. The goal was to replicate a student explaining thermodynamics to peers, much like what would happen in class. The team aimed to clarify the difference between nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry to prevent fears and biases surrounding perceptions of nuclear energy.

Share this story

This story was published May 23, 2023.