The frigid temperatures blanketing the country right now are providing the perfect context for a project getting off the ground this week in BHS physics classes: the Home Energy Efficiency Challenge. This month-long project is the result of a collaboration between the physics teachers, the City of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office Legacy Project, Efficiency Vermont, and Vermont Energy Education Project (VEEP). The goal is to engage students in understanding the physics of home energy use – including electricity and, especially, the thermodynamics of home heating – in order to give them the tools to do energy efficiency evaluations in their own homes. They’ll use this knowledge to identify places for improved efficiency and then connect homeowners (including their parents and landlords) with incentive programs to make these changes. Efficiency Vermont and CEDO hope that this effort will contribute to Burlington’s progress in the VT Home Energy Challenge, in which participating towns aim to weatherize 3% of homes in their communities.
Those of us involved in planning the project established the following curriculum sequence that we hope will be replicable in schools throughout the state:
- “Button Up” workshop on home heating, presented by VEEP
- A hands-on design project in which students compete to design the best-insulated structure
- Instruction on the physics of thermodynamics, the “stack effect,” and other background on home energy use
- Training from Efficiency Vermont on conducting home energy walk-through visits to evaluate home energy efficiency
- Students conduct home energy walk-throughs in their own homes, and make recommendations
- In some classes, students will go a step further and apply the tools of Design Thinking in order to determine the best ways to motivate homeowners to implement energy-efficient improvements to their homes.
We’re kicking off the project this week with the Button Up presentations. I visited physics classes on Tuesday to watch Erin Malloy of VEEP lead students in an inquiry experiment to determine how thermal insulation and air-tight barriers effect heat retention in model houses.
First, students examined the four model houses provided:
They compiled notes on the board to compare heat-preserving features of each house, and used these to make hypotheses about which would retain heat the longest. Then, a student helped Erin to fuel each “furnace” inside the house (a coffee cup) with hot water:
Digital temperature probes within each house measured and recorded temperatures over time:
Predictably, the house with good insulation and an air-tight barrier retained heat the best. Some students were surprised, however, to see the relative importance of the thermal layer versus the air barrier in model houses that had only one or the other. The idea is that this initial learning in the lab will reinforce students’ ability to critically identify the most important elements for thermal efficiency in their own homes.
Check back in the next couple weeks for further updates about this project. We’re excited because we believe it represents much that the Partnership stands for: authentic collaboration between school and community groups, in the context of a project that builds rigorous scientific knowledge and truly matters to students and their families.