How a study of school energy efficiency inspired a new generation of Electronautes

City Science researcher Juanita Devis with the Electronautes

Public buildings account for the greatest energy demands in the Andorran economy. As part of the City Science Lab @Andorra, a team of scientists, both from the Media Lab and Andorra, set out to deploy a network of sensors in an elementary school to gather information on Andorra’s energy usage. It wan’t long before the students became active participants in the project.

The sensors are part of a system called TerMITes — small, wireless electronic devices that, when placed throughout a building, can measure human presence, ambient light, motion, carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity. The TerMITes were installed in the Escola Andorrana d’Andorra la Vella, an elementary school with 400 students in Santa Coloma, Andorra la Vella. Forty-two rooms were outfitted with TerMITes sensors. Some classrooms received additional sensors that record how frequently windows, doors, and curtains are moved.

The TerMITes were designed at the MIT Media Lab to fill a niche, allowing low-cost, easy-to-use sensors to be widely deployed in places that do not have the resources to support commercial sensor installation. These sensors provide an end-to-end solution, requiring only a smartphone and a Wi-Fi network for installation. Once the TerMITes are installed, sensor readings are transmitted automatically to a server that makes them available for visualization through a website or mobile application. Taken together, these measurements provide the basis for a model of how buildings function as a dynamic ecosystem.

A researcher prepares to install one of 122 TerMITes in the Escola Andorrana d’Andorra la Vella. Credit: Electronautes

Almost immediately, the students were intrigued by the project and very curious about what these small bug-like sensors were, what they were doing, and how they gathered information. It quickly became apparent that this presented a unique opportunity for the team to broaden their scope of work. In addition to capturing and tracking environmental information, the team could also use the sensors to inspire scientific curiosity and creative exploration. The researchers joined forces with a group of elementary school students and adopted a collaborative approach. Key goals of the project shifted in response to the children’s input, leading researchers to refocus their overarching questions: What is the nature of students’ relationship to their school building? Could interactive tools be developed to help students understand the role of sensors, and reveal information about how to improve their school? Was there potential for behavioral interventions to influence energy usage patterns?

The first time I saw a sensor I thought: [how can] such a small thing get to much information?
Electronautes. The name of the project was inspired by the drawings the students made when they were first exposed to the sensors in their classrooms. Students captured concepts such as technology, environmental responsibility/awareness, and observation in these drawings. Credit: Electronautes

The TerMITes deployment provided an opportunity to design and implement a long-lasting, profound learning experience for the students. Traditional visualization tools, such as charts and numbers, need to be adapted to specific audiences through more familiar and engaging experiences; this is especially true for children in the 8- to 10-year-old range, who have no prior experience with sensors and data. Therefore, mapping sensor data with personal perception became the cornerstone of this pilot.

Electronautes Sketches: The website design and layout were intended to engage children’s curiosity. The friendly design takes advantage of the students’ familiarity with their classrooms to promote a sense of ownership and responsibility for maintaining the sensors and the data. Credit: Juanita Devis
Electronautes weather and colors. Credit: Juanita Devis, Núria Macià

In addition to the physical sensors, the researchers introduced a new interactive computer interface that helped the students relate sensor data to their own perceptions, creating greater understanding and a sense of control. Through a series of educational workshops, the students learned how to use sensors, collect data, and develop strategies to solve real-world problems, such as reducing the energy consumption of their school building.

Electronautes Student Quotes. Credit: City Science, Escola Andorrana d’Andorra La Vella
A student is navigating the application and taking the daily survey of their emotions. Credit: Electronautes

Mapping sensors with personal perceptions

The application, called Electronautes, is key to the achievement of these goals. The Electronautes project features a custom website where students can interact with both sensors and data, and learn more about sustainability, the energy consumption of buildings, and sensors and measurements. By taking a daily survey students can relate their own perception of the space to the information provided by the sensors. Using the Electronautes application, students can record their experiences by using drag-and-drop graphics to associate their own perceptions of comfort, energy levels, sound levels, and overall mood with data from the sensors. In contrast to traditional tools for visualizing sensor data, the goal is not to pinpoint precise values, but instead to create an interrelated web of observations over time. Capturing many combinations of variables in this way may lead to novel insights such as discovering that how more active classrooms are rated as warmer and more comfortable than calmer, quieter classrooms of the same temperature.

Each day, the building responds to natural phenomena such as rain and wind, and these elements further influence the behavior of the students. For this reason, sensor data alone will not provide answers about how to improve the comfort and efficiency of a building. Rather, long term gains in energy efficiency will be achieved through teaching students to become better stewards of their school, understanding how their own actions correspond to measurable changes in the environment.

Citizen scientists

The technologies behind TerMITes and Electronautes should be considered tools for scientific inquiry, much like microscopes or telescopes. Through a series of workshops and interactive sessions, students in the school were encouraged to develop their own hypotheses about how environmental changes impact human behavior.

In addition to working directly with students, the project also promoted collaboration with Andorran institutions, including the University of Andorra and Formació Professional (Vocational Training Program). The University of Andorra was involved in training the school’s teachers to use the sensors and understand the measurements, and also provided examples of potential educational applications. To measure the learning curve as students were exposed to new concepts related to sensing and technology, they were surveyed before and after the development of the Electronautes project to see how their knowledge and understanding changed through that experience. Students from Formació Professional built a server cluster used to process statistics and visualizations of data collected by the TerMITes. A series of blog posts created by teachers at the school highlighted some interesting possibilities for further investigation, such as understanding the relationship between carbon dioxide at the classroom scale and at the global scale. For instance, by observing changes in levels of CO2 in the classroom, students saw that their actions could also impact CO2 levels worldwide.

The Electronautes project strives to bring researchers and their work closer to elementary school students in a way that is tangible and approachable. In working with researchers visiting the school, students were asked to expand their minds. “If you had a magic sensor that could show you things you can’t see with your eyes, what would you look for with it?” Through work with the sensors and the students, the researchers also gained an understanding of their work that expands beyond environmental measurements and includes children as participants in their energy future.

Regardless of interests, aptitudes, or cultural backgrounds, students are able to engage and understand their impact on their environment, and also how the space around them influences their comfort and mood. Juanita Devis, a researcher on the project, said, “I think the future of education should focus more on ‘learning how to learn,’ to enable students and people to acquire, interpret, and advance knowledge to address current and future needs. I envision a future network of experts, reachable worldwide, that can support this learning process and guide everyone to create their own learning experience.”

The Electronautes experiment will continue for the coming years, and as the children learn and adapt the technology to their needs, we will understand more about their learning process, and see what novel discoveries they might have.

Contributors:

TerMITes (sensors): Carson Smuts, Jason Nawyn

Electronautes: Juanita Devis, Núria Macià (Fundació ActuaTech), Luis Alonso

Electronautes Web application: Juanita Devis, Núria Macià (Fundació ActuaTech), Jason Nawyn

Escola Andorrana d’Andorra La Vella: Bruno Bartolomé, Albert Maluquer

Teaching the Teachers and Learning Curve: Cristina Yáñez (UdA), Florenci Pla (UdA), Núria Macià (Fundació ActuaTech)

Data Analysis: Josep Ribó (FP), Vitor Fernandes, Carles Serra, Marc Jorge (FP students), Núria Macià (Fundació ActuaTech),

Acknowledgments:

Aleix Dorca (Universitat d’Andorra), Marc Pons, Marc Vilella, Oriol Travesset, Guillem Francisco (OBSA), Josep Ribes (FEDA/Fundació ActuaTech), Xavier Forné (FEDA), Vanesa Alcántara (Universidad del Pacífico), Maggie Church, Kent Larson (MIT).