Go Green, Save Green: Energy Efficiency Design Challenge

This year Burlington High School physics teachers Lisa Carpenter and Richard Meyer took the risk of moving beyond lecture, labs and textbooks. They opened their classrooms to collaborate with community partners in order to make their energy efficiency units more relevant and rigorous.

Carpenter and Meyer met with community partners and Partnership for Change to identify real energy efficient problems in Burlington that connect with content standards in their physics classes. Partners included the City of Economic Development Office (CEDO), Efficiency Vermont, Burlington Electric (BED), Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP), The D. School at Stanford and local landlords and homeowners. Over 100 juniors at BHS participated in this energy efficiency unit.

Students learned the science and economics of energy efficiency through project based learning with community partners. Next they identified an authentic problem in the Burlington community: the need to improve energy efficient behaviors in renters, homeowners and landlords. Students used a process called design thinking in order to understand the problem and prototype solutions to pitch and gather feedback for further development.

The result was engaged and challenged students who took their learning and used it to save energy and costs in their own residences, as well as others. Students used their knowledge of the physics of home energy use to do energy efficiency evaluations in their own homes and identify areas for improved efficiency. Some connected with incentive programs to make these changes thereby reducing utility rates for their families and contributing to the Burlington VT Home Energy Challenge to weatherize 3% of homes in the community. Finally students interviewed local residents to understand their habits and design creative solutions to help them improve their energy efficient behaviors.

Carpenter was impressed with the results of experimenting with community based learning for this unit. “When we cover energy in physics, we usually look at the relationship between potential and kinetic energy,” said Carpenter.  “We work with equations and calculations, and students always ask “Why are we learning this?”  With energy efficiency, the learning became much more relevant.  We analyzed the cost and benefits of using different types of light bulbs, we learned how to look for signs that a living space is losing heat too quickly, and we investigated how climate change is going to affect crops, weather, and animals, the ocean, and humans across the globe.  By interviewing community members about their energy use and behavior, we were able to provide authentic learning experiences for our students.  The learning this year has been connected to current events and issues facing our youth.”

Students learned a lot about the Burlington community through the design thinking process. Design thinking starts with gaining empathy for those affected by a problem. I collaborated with Carpenter to teach students the design thinking process and help them gain skills such as listening, asking open-ended questions to elicit stories, capturing insights, reframing problems, YES AND brainstorming, rapid prototyping, gathering feedback, working as a team and formulating a product pitch.

This was difficult for students used to memorizing content from textbook and lecture. They needed to not only understand content, but also apply it with skills such as effective communication, critical thinking and problem solving and collaboration. We recognized our students need more practice in these skills to be successful beyond high school, and design thinking is an effective process to practice these skills.

Students rose to the challenge and even had fun in the process. Carpenter and I surveyed students to find out what they learned from the design thinking process and working with community partners. It was interesting to see that most of them talked about strengths, challenges and insights into the skills involved with design thinking rather than content:

“One thing I learned and will use again is how to ask open-ended questions when interviewing people so they can tell a story about their experiences rather than just one word responses. I learned how to dig deeper and ask better questions.”

“The most challenging part about this design thinking project was trying to work together and have all our ideas come together.”

“I learned that you should have many ideas. You might not use them all, but it’s good to have options. If one thing in the process doesn’t work out, you are able to use the other ideas you have. You keep trying and don’t give up until you find the right solution.”

“I liked how we worked as a team and got to know another person outside of school and how they thought about energy saving and global climate change.”

“The one thing I learned by using design thinking is you can save energy by making so many small changes in your behaviors.”

“My favorite parts of the design thinking process was the brainstorm, prototype and product pitch because you had to get involved in your group. You also had to think hard and design the best you could.”

When asked about the benefits of using design thinking and community based learning in her classroom, Carpenter said, “The design thinking process involves a lot of skills. I knew my students would rise to the occasion of conducting professional interviews of community members, but actually watching it take place was remarkable.  The students were completely engaged, asking insightful questions and interacting with homeowners and landlords in a professional manner. Following the interviewing process, students had to choose one product to develop further. They immediately took charge and began planning, brainstorming, and taking ownership of the process. The design thinking process worked so well with energy efficiency; I’m excited to think of new ways to integrate parts of it or all of it into other units.”

Some of the prototypes and products pitched by students and shared with community partners included:

  • An energy reminder app for smart phones
  • A Home Energy Walk-through app
  • Go Green Activities for Kids
  • A website for kids with videos and games around energy efficiency
  • An energy efficiency board game for kids
  • An IR camera attachment for smartphones to identify where heat escapes in the home

As for how the students shifted Carpenter’s own energy efficient behaviors? “I conducted a home energy walk-through of my apartment, which helped me discover that one of my doors was missing weather stripping. I turned down my thermostat another 2 degrees in an effort to conserve propane in the winter months. Thankfully, I don’t think I can go any lower than 57 degrees without freezing some pipes. I also have been incredibly diligent about unplugging cell phone cords, computer cords and others when not in use.”

For more information about project and community based learning connected to the energy efficiency design challenge, please see Fellow Amy Dickson’s post here.

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