Breeding Energy Literacy through Product Design
Originally published on Green Schools National Network February 14, 2017
Up until two years ago, I spent the previous fifteen years of my career in media. I focused on the transformation from traditional to digital media and on leading the charge of change in the industry.
Two years ago I left my role at a traditional media company to do something more entrepreneurial. I thought I was going to tackle something new in media, and then a funny thing happened along the way. My wife asked me to look into putting solar panels on our roof.
That simple question started a process of discovery and self-education that has engaged, inspired, and driven me since. Admittedly, when I started that journey, I could not recall the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt hour, the fundamental difference between energy and power.
Driven by a desire to learn something highly relevant to my life and home, I became a voracious student on the physics, technology, design, and business of energy. It became a mission.
One of the first things that struck me in my journey was my lack of energy literacy. Like many people, electricity was simply a plug in the wall that was just supposed to work. In an age when our biggest societal challenges revolve around energy and the modernization of our infrastructure, that lack of basic literacy around the fundamentals is problematic.
It became clear to me that for people to understand energy it needed to be visible and engaging. It needed to be more than just a plug. That is especially true for students who are learning about energy.
To breed energy literacy, we need infrastructure that is relevant and relatable. It needs to have a face and a name. It also needs to be about more than just energy.
So, I came up with a plan.
Move energy infrastructure into the living spaces of schools and communities in a way that makes energy accessible, understandable, exciting, and engaging. Drive energy literacy by making it visible and part of daily life. Raise awareness with infrastructure that makes a statement about our commitment to sustainability and that is an active participant in the educational experience.
That goal requires focus on both product and design. It demands one to rethink “utilitarian” infrastructure that has been relegated to point functions and designed to be hidden.
Make a product that is more than just a visible symbol. Create a powerful, enabling platform. To do that, it was important to think about integrating connectivity and safety. We looked to extend connectivity across campuses and communities, and doing so in a way that served students and families, even during emergencies, when they need access the most. To maximize impact, safety and security are also critical components. The combination of all these capabilities is what creates an enabling learning space and frees minds to explore.
Create a foundation for development. I use the term development loosely here, as it applies to educational growth, programming, and the opportunities that lie in between the two. That is where things get really exciting. That is where we expose a platform to ignite inspiration, learning, and growth. That is where we breed leaders in the cities and communities of tomorrow.
It is about exposing an educational platform and tools to teach physics, math, and computer science. It is also about design and arts.
We are thinking about tomorrow’s curriculum and the opportunities that we can uncover across all disciplines. Topics span all major areas and can engage students no matter where their interest lies. We seek to collaborate with educators to create classroom programs that meet the goals of STEAM, offering real-life examples and tools to utilize in and outside the classroom.
Starting with science and math, the infrastructure at our educational facilities should expose relevant data about what is going on locally, that is made readily accessible and easily integrated into coursework. For example,
- How much energy is my school producing right now?
- How much is it consuming right now?
- What happens if we turn off the lights and air conditioner for a period of time?
- How do electric vehicles change energy use?
- What is the difference in carbon dioxide produced in different scenarios?
- How does the energy profile, both generation and consumption, change with weather, temperature, sun intensity, and seasonality?
By capturing data more broadly, one can start to provide significantly more input to educational programs.
- What are the air pollution trends in my community?
- How does soil moisture impact yield in local gardens?
- What are noise levels during the day?
- How much foot traffic is there at a facility over the course of the day, and what patterns exist?
Done right, this information provides fodder for highly relevant coursework that can expose increasingly sophisticated learning opportunities as students become more fluent and grow. That data can also be used to feed computer science projects and education in new and exciting ways.
It is not just about science and math, but also about design and creative arts. Campus infrastructure ought to expose new canvases to make such infrastructure more relevant to schools and their communities. Sure, that means the actual exterior of infrastructure, but it also means creating new canvases to enable storytelling and media creation tied to that infrastructure. It means explorations in music, video, augmented and virtual reality. It means platforms for imaginations without limits.
We are thinking about how to create a compelling vehicle for STEAM in education for tomorrow’s workforce. We are excited to be headed toward comprehensive opportunities that embody all subjects, including organically bringing the art of design to the fore as a meaningful way to think about modern infrastructure.
Make all of the above possible for schools across the country, even in the most disadvantaged and economically-challenged areas and districts. There is a big role for public-private partnerships to play, and we are excited that we have found a powerful way forward.
That is what we are doing and where we are focused at Totem. I am excited to be a part of an army of like-minded players building the infrastructure of tomorrow while pushing the envelope to create learning opportunities that matter for our children.