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Students Design Dream Homes Inspired by CLOµDS

On Friday, Aliya, Steph, and Andrew visited Ms. Hillyer’s seventh grade class as part of the CLOuDS evaluation process. Ms. Hillyer was part of the NASA professional development workshop this summer. During class, students worked on a year-long project to build a model of an energy-efficient house inspired, in part, by Ms. Hillyer's experiences this summer. The project-based learning replaces a traditional classroom learning style with open-ended exploration firmly rooted in state and national standards. 

Prior to our visit, Ms. Hillyer discussed her experience in detail, showing movies and pictures, and describing the scientific process.  She reported that one of the most valuable parts of the CLOµDS experience was being able to design an experiment, and directing the scientific process. 

Learning that scientists don't always have the answers and that they often revise their experimental design after preliminary tests was a great surprise to her, so she wanted to pass that information along to her students.  She also realized that just telling them that wouldn't work, but rather that she needed to have them go through a similar process to get the point across. She did not go into too much detail beyond describing the process, but rather decided to have the students conduct their own investigations.

They began the year by learning about circuits in a traditional classroom setting, involving lectures, simple demonstrations, quizzes and tests. Then after some instruction on energy efficiency concepts, Ms. Hillyer told the students that they were to design a model house out of a shoebox that had at least one window and two doors. The construction phase lasts ~2 months, in which they design the house plan, build it, insulated it, and wire the house up with three light bulbs. We observed the classroom during this phase. After that they would perform efficiency tests, by measuring the temperature inside and outside the house after a 20 minute period (in January). They would then be allowed to modify their houses in light of their results.

The project is being conducted in collaboration with the Language Arts Department and the Math Department. In Math class, the students learn to make scale drawings and graph the time evolution of the inside and outside temperatures. The students will write up a research report about energy efficiency, including references and a bibliography, for their Language Arts class. In all three classes (Science, Math and Language Arts), they receive a test grade for their performance on this project.

The students were highly motivated while we were there. When asked to describe their design, most enthusiastically explained why they made some of the design choices. Many students were observed to revise their design during the class, either through discussion with their fellow classmates or through a discovery that some aspect of their original design wasn't going to work. Students cheerfully reported that they sometimes were frustrated with the project, but eagerly described how they overcame their initial problem. A number of students reported that Science was their favorite class, because of the project.

Ms. Hillyer’s class serves as prime example of how inquiry based learning can be incorporated into the classroom. The project allows students at all levels to work through the scientific process and realize that most scientists do not have all the answers, but rather, go through a series of failures and adjustments before succeeding. 

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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