Kids learn physics, energy efficiency basics

Project SOS
Children learn some basic concepts of physics by using exhibits designed
to also teach home energy efficiency. (Photo by Kathleen Ryan, WSU)

PULLMAN, Wash. – An innovative collaborative project is teaching young people the basics of physics. Using simple models, an interdisciplinary team is simultaneously opening doors to more sustainable, energy-efficient homes.

Project SOS – the Science of Sustainability – is funded by a National Science Foundation grant to teach middle school students from local communities about the physics of energy transfer in their own homes.

The goals of the two-year project are that the children gain a basic understanding of physics, learn to work collaboratively, bring their interest and information home to their families and begin to think about the future.

Outreach to science centers

“It’s an exploration project where we are attempting to develop a new way for children to learn science,” said Kathleen Ryan, assistant professor of interior design in the Washington State University School of Design and Construction. The project has two outreach components: phase one is to develop an audience-appropriate curriculum; phase two is to present and make available the results to national science centers.

Children learn the basic concepts of physics through simple hands-on exhibits and are then shown how to apply them to make their own homes more energy efficient, Ryan said.

One of the goals is that students work together to conserve energy in a model house using easy energy-saving measures such as installing insulation, plugging air leaks and performing energy audits.

“Whenever a structure fits together well, it means someone designed it well,” Ryan said.

Reaching rural communities

The team has developed tabletop exhibits and model houses (simplified representations of houses – although they are basic box structures right now) that are taken to outreach communities.

Taking Project SOS from prototype models to permanent exhibits is the goal for one of the partners, the Palouse Discovery Science Center in Pullman. Ryan’s hope is to provide these models to other informal science centers in the area as well.

In particular, the project aims to introduce the potential for informal science education centers in a number of rural communities. Participants in the SOS project are middle school students from Rosalia, Wash., and Plummer, Kendrick-Julietta and the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho.

Collaboration is key

Part of the Project SOS puzzle for Kathleen Ryan was leveraging a team of professionals from very different backgrounds to come together with the goal of introducing some of the basic concepts of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to young people.

The project partners faculty and staff from WSU, the Palouse Discovery Science Center and University of Idaho physics and science education with the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, Avista, Clearwater Power, Inland Power and Light and Kootenai Electric.

Creating effective interactive experiences about abstract science concepts is challenging for small science centers due to limited resources, which is why collaboration across disciplines is key to the project’s success. 

“We develop hands-on exhibits and then work with the kids in terms of conduction, convection and radiation,” explained Ryan. “The big step, once they understand these basic concepts of physics, is whether they can take that and work collaboratively with another child to explain the science that’s going on within a system.”

Simple tests, serious learning

In one experiment, the children are trained to be “heat-loss detective-scientists” during an arranged “blower door test.” A fan is sealed into the doorway of an actual house. The fan blows air out of the building, creating a differential between the indoor and outdoor air pressure.

The lower indoor pressure allows outside air to seep into the building through its holes and gaps. Using heatless smoke pencils (tools that generate a small trail of dense water vapor), students pinpoint the sources of drafts as inflowing air moves the “smoke.”

Another exhibit involves a literal “hands-on” display of ordinary materials: brick, metal and wood.

“If you touch wood and then touch metal, it will feel cooler; not because it is cooler but because the heat is moving from your hand to the metal faster,” Ryan said. Each material has a different thermal conductivity, something that the children are able to identify with these simple demonstrations.



Kathleen Ryan, WSU School of Design and Construction, 509-335-3815,
Kathy Dawes, Palouse Discovery Science Center,
Christine Berven, University of Idaho physics,
Anne Kern, University of Idaho science education,