Category Archives: Main Blog

General Motors funds engineering education based on Energy3D

Designing a parking lot solar canopy at Detroit Airport
General Motors (GM), along with other RE100 companies, has committed to powering its worldwide factories and offices with 100% renewable energy by 2050. Last month, the company furthered its commitment by giving the Engineering Computation Team at the Concord Consortium a $200,000 grant to promote engineering education using renewable energy as a learning context and artificial intelligence as a teaching assistant.

Modeling GM's rooftop solar arrays in Baltimore, MD
Modeling GM's solar arrays in Warren, MI
The project will use our signature Energy3D software, which is a one-stop-shop CAD tool for designing and simulating all kinds of solar power systems including photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP), both of which have reached a very competitive cost of merely 5¢ per kWh or below in the world market. A unique feature of Energy3D is its ability to collect and analyze "atomically" fine-grained process data while users are designing with it. This capability makes it possible for us to develop machine learning algorithms to understand users' design behaviors, based on which we can develop intelligent agents to help users design better products and even unleash their creativity.

The generous grant from GM will allow us to bring this incredible engineering learning tool and the curriculum materials it supports to more science teachers across New England. It will also help extend our fruitful collaboration with the Virtual High School (VHS) to convert our Solarize Your World curriculum into an online course for sustainable engineering. VHS currently offers more than 200 titles to over 600 member schools. Through their large network, we hope to inspire and support more students and teachers to join the crucial mission that GM and other RE100 companies are already undertaking.

By supporting today's students to learn critical engineering design skills needed to meet the energy and environmental challenges, GM is setting an example of preparing tomorrow's workforce to realize its renewable energy vision.

Energy3D allows users to select brand name solar panels

Fig. 1: 20 brand name solar panels in Energy3D
Fig. 2: The daily outputs of 20 types of solar panels
Previous versions of Energy3D were based on a generic model of solar panel, which users can set its properties such as solar cell type, peak efficiency, panel dimension, color, nominal operating cell temperature, temperature coefficient of power, and so on. While it is essential for users to be able to adjust these parameters and learn what they represent and how they affect the output, it is sometimes inconvenient for a designer to manually set the properties of a solar panel to those of a brand name.

Fig. 3: The Micky Mouse solar farm
From Version 7.4.4, I started to add support of brand name solar panels to Energy3D. Twenty brand names were initially added to this version (Figure 1). These models are: ASP-400M (Advanced Solar Photonics), CS6X-330M-FG (Canadian Solar), CS6X-330P-FG (Canadian Solar), FS-4122-3 (First Solar), HiS-M280MI (Hyundai), HiS-S360RI (Hyundai), JAM6(K)-60-300/PR (JA Solar), JKM300M-60 (Jinko), LG300N1C-B3 (LG), LG350Q1K-A5 (LG), PV-UJ235GA6 (Mitsubishi), Q.PRO-G4 265 (Q-cells), SPR-E20-435-COM (SunPower), SPR-P17-350-COM (SunPower), SPR-X21-335-BLK (SunPower), SPR-X21-345 (SunPower), TSM-325PEG14(II) (Trina Solar), TSM-365DD14A(II) (Trina Solar), VBHN330SA16 (Panasonic), and YL305P-35b (Yingli). Figure 2 shows a comparison of their daily outputs in Boston on June 22 when they are laid flat (i.e., with zero tilt angle). Not surprisingly, a smaller solar panel with a lower cell efficiency produces less electricity.

Note that these models are relatively new. There are hundreds of older and other types of solar panels that will take a long time to add. If your type is not currently supported, you can always fall back to defining it using the "Custom" option, which is the default model for a solar panel.

Adding these brand names helped me figure out that the solar panels deployed in the Micky Mouse Solar Farm in Orlando (Figure 3) are probably from First Solar -- only they make solar panels of such a relatively small size (1200 mm × 600 mm).

Learn about two Concord Consortium projects at EdSurge Fusion Conference

Bill Finzer and Sherry Hsi will both present at the EdSurge Fusion Conference in Burlingame, California, near our Emeryville office.

The Common Online Data Analysis Platform—Getting more students in more classrooms to do more with data

William Finzer
Thursday, November 2
12:00 – 1:00 PM

CODAP is a free web-based data tool designed as a platform for developers and as an application for students in grades 6–14. Designed with learning in mind, CODAP continues the legacy of the award-winning software packages Fathom and TinkerPlots. It builds on a decades-long legacy of research into interactive environments encouraging exploration, play, and puzzlement. CODAP is about exploring and learning from data from any content area—from math and science to social studies or physical education!

The data set in CODAP has information on 27 mammals, including humans! Learn more by examining the tables and graphs.

Computationally-Enhanced Papercrafts for Engineering Education

Sherry Hsi
Thursday, November 2
12:00 – 1:00 PM

Paper Mechatronics is a novel design medium integrating traditional educational papercrafts with mechanical design, electronic engineering, and computational thinking. Paper mechatronics makes possible a craft-oriented approach to engineering and computing education that integrates key concepts from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control systems, and computer programming, while using paper as the primary material for learner design, exploration, and inquiry.

Watch how to create your own devices from cardboard – machines, robots, toys, automata, kinetic artwork – that move!

Even Fiction Can Expand Our Understanding of Science

Andy Zucker was a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium who is now enjoying his retirement, including working with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).  

Many people know Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, in which he posits that humans used remnants of dinosaur DNA to imprudently create a modern theme park populated with dinosaurs. Crichton often used science as a takeoff point in his novels. But Harvard scientist George Church is currently working to revive woolly mammoths using DNA samples frozen for thousands of years.

A value of Crichton’s works is they remind us of the important role that data play in science. Science is not only an experimental science. It often relies more heavily than standard textbooks suggest on the accumulation of accurate data long before theories explain the data.

In the latest Crichton novel, Dragon Teeth, a newly discovered manuscript posthumously published nine years after his death, fossil hunters work in the American West in 1876. Although fictionalized, Dragon Teeth is based on a real-life rivalry between two remarkable, obsessive men—Edwin Drinker Cope of the University of Pennsylvania and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale—who were responsible for finding fossils of more than 1,500 species. Their exploits were known as “the Bone Wars.”

The fictional protagonist is based on the real-life fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who supplied superb fossils to scholars and museums around the world, and who wrote, “I could tell of a hundred narrow escapes from death.” Larger-than-life figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Wyatt Earp were alive in 1876 and play roles in the novel. It is easy to see how Crichton used authentic history to create a fast-paced adventure story.

Some ancient people thought dinosaur bones came from dragons, but it was not until the 1840s that the term “dinosaur” was coined. The first dinosaur fossil was discovered in America in 1858. The site where Custer and his troops met their ignominious end in 1876, Montana’s Little Bighorn, is not far from key locations where dinosaur fossils were collected.

Data collectors are the unsung heroes of science. Without the thousands of butterflies collected in the Amazon by Henry Bates, scientists would not have had direct evidence of the creation of a new species—a discovery that Darwin called the “beautiful proof” for natural selection. Johannes Kepler was the first to understand that the planets move in elliptical orbits; his theory relied on the data of others (e.g., Tycho Brahe). The photos of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin were used by Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to establish that DNA has a helical structure. Our current understanding of dinosaurs and how they were wiped out by a meteor strike depends on data from fossils, but also from ancient pollen, geological finds, and astronomical data.

Dragon Teeth proves that even fiction can broaden our understanding of science and of the data collectors responsible for enlarging human understanding of the world.

Learn about watersheds at MSELA Conference

Carolyn Staudt will present information about the NSF-funded Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed project and share free resources at the Massachusetts Education Leadership Association (MSELA) 2017 conference.

Friday, October 20, 8:00 – 9:15 AM
Courtyard Marriott in Marlborough, MA
Marlborough Salon E

The Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed project is a collaborative research project at the Concord Consortium, Millersville University, and the Stroud Water Research Center.

Together, we’re teaching a systems approach to problem solving through modeling and hands-on activities based on local watershed data and issues. The curricula also integrate low-cost environmental sensors, allowing students to collect and upload their own data and compare them to data visualized on the free Model My Watershed app.

If you’re wondering what a watershed is, you’re not alone. Simply put, a watershed is “all the land area where the rain runs downhill to a certain point,” explains Carolyn Staudt, who directs the Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed project at the Concord Consortium. She continues, “Water is shared—there are people upstream and downstream. What you do with your local watershed impacts everyone.”

Model My Watershed models human impacts on a watershed.

Learn more

MSELA conference
Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed
Part I: What is a Watershed?
Part II: Part II: Students Learn about Water . . .  and Take Action
Monday’s Lesson: Can you filter your water?

The 2017 Energy Innovation Forum

We are invited to present at the Energy Innovation Forum on October 18 organized by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The event will connect about 30 companies in Massachusetts with funders, investors, university researchers, and industry leaders to stimulate innovations in energy technologies.

For those who cannot attend the event, I am sharing our two posters here. You can also take a look at the PowerPoint slides for the Infrared Street View Project and the Virtual Solar Grid Project (we will do both oral and poster presentations). Both projects focus on developing a unique crowdsourcing model that integrates STEM education and energy research. The projects provide examples of using citizen science to support and engage a large number of students to learn science and engineering and participate in large-scale energy research.

The Infrared Street View Project will support research and education in the field of energy efficiency whereas the Virtual Solar Grid Project will support research and education in the field of renewable energy (primarily solar energy at present). Both projects are based on cutting-edge technologies being developed in my lab.

The repeal of the Clean Power Plan and how to teach about energy choices and climate change

The Clean Power Plan, which sets state-by-state targets for carbon emissions reductions, has been called a climate game changer, but the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has repealed the plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Over the last several decades there has been an increasing awareness of the ways humans affect Earth’s systems. To understand the impact of policy changes, it is important to understand the core science concepts and the role of human activity. With this latest decision by the EPA, there is no better time to learn about energy choices and the future of Earth’s climate.

The Concord Consortium’s High-Adventure Science project has developed six free, high-quality curriculum modules in collaboration with National Geographic Education for middle and high school classrooms. One module explores the question “What are our energy choices?” Another investigates “What is the future of Earth’s climate?”

In the climate change module, students explore interactions between factors that affect Earth’s climate. Students analyze temperature data from ice cores, sediments, and satellites, as well as greenhouse gas data from atmospheric measurements. They also run experiments with computational models and hear from a climate scientist working to answer the same question about the future of the Earth’s climate.

The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies video shows the changes in Earth’s temperature across the globe between 1884 and 2012, compared to the baseline temperature between 1950 and 1980.

In the energy module, students explore the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources for generating electricity with a particular focus on natural gas extracted from shale formations through the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process. Students examine real-world data to learn about electricity consumption trends worldwide, and use an interactive with data from the Energy Information Administration to investigate the sources of electricity in their state (and across the U.S.) from 2001 to 2010.

Explore some ways that an aquifer can be contaminated by drilling for shale gas. Click the About link in the upper right of the model for instructions to create a drill, set off explosions to fracture the shale layer, fill the pipe with water or propane to hydraulically fracture the shale further, and pump out the fracking fluid.

When considering our energy future and how that impacts climate change there are no easy answers. Many factors need to be considered when making energy choices. The choices we make—whether locally, nationally, or globally—have direct and indirect effects on human health, the environment, and the economy. How do you teach your students about energy choices and the future of Earth’s climate?


The physics of a dynamic 3D plate tectonics model

Earth’s landforms have been shaped over hundreds of millions of years by the movement and interaction of Earth’s tectonic plates. While geoscientists can correlate the wide variety of landforms to this movement, teaching about it poses significant challenges. It’s hard for students to reason spatially and temporally about such processes.

One of the goals of the GEODE project is to design an interactive, dynamic plate tectonics model. Plate tectonics is a fundamental theory that unifies Earth science. It describes Earth’s surface as consisting of a number of “plates” that pull apart, move towards each other, or move side by side. These interactions are responsible for the formation and distribution of geologic phenomena.

Creating a model to represent the complex Earth system is no simple task. We wrote about the challenges of starting with a 2D version in Modeling Plate Tectonics for Learning, but decided to abandon that approach in favor of a 3D model. While visualizations of Earth’s plates exist, a 3D dynamic, interactive plate tectonics model based on physics that runs on school-based computers did not. Until now.

We have begun work on a new 3D GEODE model. The beta version already simulates the following geological processes:

  • subduction and related volcanic activity
  • continental collision and orogeny
  • forming of a new oceanic crust at divergent boundaries

Play the video to watch GEODE’s new 3D geodynamic model representing interacting plates on a modeled planet.

The plates are modeled as rigid bodies that rotate around the center of a planet. Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields with various geological properties:

  • crust type (oceanic or continental)
  • elevation (which can be changed by volcanic activity or orogeny)
  • geological data describing processes like subduction, volcanic activity, or orogeny

Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields that interact based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon

Every step of the simulation is based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon. In addition, the final torque (sum of all torques coming from the hexagonal forces), angular accelerations, and angular velocities are calculated for each plate modeled. As plates interact along the plate boundaries, the model detects either the need to generate new fields (hexagons) where plates move apart—like what happens along mid-ocean rifts—or detects collisions and determines what processes are happening—for example, subduction, mountain building, volcanic activity.

Speech technology in education research. Can you hear me now?

The primary way students and teachers interact in the classroom is through talking. A teacher poses a question, a student answers, followed by discussion, or argument. Back and forth, words are exchanged; ideas are refined and understood.

But unlike words on paper, spoken words disappear as soon as they are expressed. Even if the conversation is recorded, there has been no easy way to analyze each word—let alone the level of collaboration, motivation, and reasoning—outside of laboriously transcribing and coding limited interactions.

What if there were a way to electronically capture, measure, characterize, and understand all the words spoken in the classroom? How would access to that information inform education?

The Concord Consortium and its partners have begun exploring these questions. “Speech technology opens up whole new possibilities for analyzing what’s happening in the classroom,” explains Concord Consortium President and CEO Chad Dorsey. “Speech is the coin of the realm in education. For the most part, the core of teaching and learning has to happen when people are speaking to one another.”

The approaching convergence of speech technology and education has been in view for years. The field may not have reached a total convergence, but recent progress has at least made the impossible seem possible.

To assess the potential for speech technology for education research, the Concord Consortium, in 2015, partnered with leaders in spoken language technology research—SRI International and its Speech Technology and Research Laboratory and the Center for Robust Speech Systems at the University of Texas at Dallas—on a National Science Foundation grant to collate and examine current knowledge about speech recognition and analysis, and encourage collaborations that can launch the area of spoken language technology for education.   

For the past year, the partners have been holding focus groups with education and speech researchers to find out what’s already in place, what their hopes are for the future, and what gaps need to be filled to bridge the two. In January the Concord Consortium and SRI held a webinar, hosted by the Center for Innovative Research in CyberLearning (CIRCL), to share information about the potential for speech technology and education research. They have also published a summary of the field as a CIRCL primer. A paper for an educational research journal is in the works that will provide a broad analysis of speech technology and its use in education. Their hope is that bringing this new field out into the open will create “ah ha” moments that spur new collaborations.

However, the steps needed for a true convergence are many and complex. “There are four or five different stages that involve different kinds of technology that have all been maturing independently over years,” says Dorsey. The speech data has to be captured and turned into an appropriate digital format (no small task), and speech has to be distinguished from sound that is not speech, and one speaker from another. Once all that data has been successfully collected, how do you analyze and make sense of it?

The first step may be getting the education research community to recognize the tremendous unrealized potential of spoken language technologies for collecting word counts and performing keyword analysis, as well as evaluating collaboration, argumentation, teacher questioning, emotions, and social signals. It might also be possible to combine different types of data to create new knowledge. For example, combining data on overlapping speech and speech segments with question detection could yield information on whether a classroom is a student-centered classroom.

Consumer technologies like Siri and Alexa only scratch the surface of what’s currently available for research-quality engineering applications, but they have focused the public’s attention on speech technology. Dorsey is cautiously optimistic about the future and notes, “Once people realize this really is possible, it drives more research and work in the area.”

Speech technology and education has yet to mature into a fully formed interdisciplinary research field, but work has begun.

“Sometimes pushing big ideas forward takes understanding where the field is now and who the players are and the kinds of alliance needed for something to move from one step to the next,” says Dorsey.

The first step may be simply starting to talk.

STEM Resource Finder: Part IV – Student Reports

When your students begin to work through models and activities you have assigned to them, you can track their progress.

  1. Log in to the STEM Resource Finder and click the Home button.
  2. In the left-hand column, click the name of your class, then Assignments.
  3. Click on the drop-down list from all of the activities you’ve assigned to access the one you’re interested in.
  4. Each student’s progress in that activity is displayed in the orange progress bars.
  5. Click the Report button for a detailed summary report. (Reports are not available for some activities.)

Providing Electronic Feedback to Your Students

How do you give feedback to your students on their answers? Many teachers have printed out reports to provide feedback and grades. While you can still print reports, you now have the option to provide scores and feedback electronically.

Next to every question is a Provide Feedback button. Clicking this button will enable you to give either written feedback or a score to your students on questions of your choosing.

Your students will see your comments the next time they log in to their accounts. They can then use your feedback to improve their responses.

Comparing Student Responses

The report allows you to compare and project student responses. Scroll down to a question that you’d like to share with your class. After clicking Show responses, the question report will expand, displaying student responses below the question. Select the answers that you would like to compare and/or project. Click the Compare/project button.

This feature can be useful to show a range of answers to spur class discussion. Share model snapshots, multiple-choice selections, and open-response answers. Lead students in a discussion to try to figure out how the variables were tweaked in the model to result in the outcomes shared by snapshots. Help students to critique responses to learn about what makes a great scientific explanation.

And best of all, you can hide the students’ names from the projected view! Keeping it anonymous helps to keep the discussion about the content, not about the individual/group.

Additional information is available in the User Guide.

How will you use these features in your classroom? What other features would you want? Questions? Please share.