More analytic capabilities added to Energy3D

Sunday, April 27th, 2014 by Charles Xie

Add any number of sensors to a house.
According to Wikipedia, computer-aided engineering (CAE) is typically done through the following steps:
  1. Pre-processing: This step defines the 3D geometry, the initial conditions, and the boundary conditions of the model.
  2. Analysis solver: This step predicts the properties of the model and, sometimes, their time evolution.
  3. Post-processing: This step visualizes the results of the analysis using maps and graphs.
Sensor graphs.
In real engineering practices, these three steps are often done using different computer programs, run on different computers, or even carried out by different people. This time-consuming and complicated process often prevents CAE tools from being productive in the classroom, as many students cannot overcome the long learning curve in a very short time permitted by their schedules.

One of the critical features that distinguish our Energy3D software from other CAD tools is that it eliminates all these gaps and delays. From day one of the Energy3D project, we have envisioned a CAD tool that supports concurrent inquiry and design, thus allowing students to explore many design options with scientific inquiry and rapidly get feedback to help them make design decisions. This is an essential innovation that makes a CAD tool broadly useful for teaching engineering design skills rather than just computer drawing skills.
Construction cost.

To move closer to our goal, we have recently added many new, exciting features to Energy3D Version 3.0 to greatly advance its analytic capacity. These features include:

1) Virtual sensors. Students can add any number of sensor modules to any surface of the buildings under design to measure insolation density and heat transfer at the building envelope. This is analogous to using sensor-based data loggers in building diagnostics. Virtual sensors will allow Energy3D to eventually support systems design, creating opportunities for students to practice systems thinking in the context of building intelligence. For example, students will be able to simulate Google's NEST Learning Thermostat and explore how much energy can be saved using these smart house technologies.

Energy vs. orientation
2) Construction cost analysis. Any real engineering project is subject to a budgetary limit. While students are designing, Energy3D predicts the construction cost and breaks it down into categories. They will get a warning when a design goes over a budget, creating a financial constraint for a design project.

3) Building orientation optimization. Students can rotate a building and explore how energy can be saved by simply choosing an optimal orientation.

Together with the features of seasonal analyses announced before, Energy3D provides an increasingly comprehensive simulation environment for learning engineering design in the context of sustainable housing.

Green building design with Energy3D: How big should south-facing windows be?

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Many people know that south-facing windows can help to heat a house in the winter because they let a lot of sunlight in. Exactly how much of the south-facing wall should we allocate to windows? What are the downsides? How can we avoid them? Our Energy3D software allows students to explore the problems and find the solutions.

Figure 1


Suppose we have a simple house like the one shown in Figure 1 and we are in the Boston area. Energy3D supports students to try a design choice, run a simulation, collect the data, analyze the result, and evaluate the solution -- all in real time as is shown in the video in this post. Energy3D's powerful simulation and analysis tools provide instantaneous feedback to students so that their design processes can be guided and informed by the scientific and engineering principles built in the software. Let's use the investigation of south-facing windows described above as an example.


Figure 2 (Excel graph)
Suppose a student follows the design trajectory as shown in Figure 1. A challenge is to keep the yearly energy cost needed to maintain the temperature of the house at 20℃ to be as low as possible. The student begins with adding a small window to the south side of the house. By running the seasonal energy analysis tool in Energy3D, she immediately discovers that, by adding a small window, she can cut the energy cost a bit. Then she enlarges the window and finds that more energy can be saved. So she goes on to increase the size of the window. However, she finds that, at some point, larger windows on the south side start to cost more energy. After she adds two large windows, the energy cost increases over 15%, compared with the case of no window at all. Figure 2 shows the energy cost, broken down to heater and AC, as a function of the window area. That doesn't quite make sense to her. So she has to stop and think about why.
Figure 3 (Energy3D graph)


The trend in Figure 2 suggests that, with the enlargement of windows on the south side, the cooling cost continues to rise while the heating cost levels off. A monthly breakdown in Figure 3 reveals this trend more clearly. As shown by the golden dashed line in Figure 2, the solar heating through the windows increases rapidly when their total area gets enlarged.

Figure 4 (Energy3D graph)
Figure 5 (Energy3D graph)
If she wants to keep the large window area in the south side (for natural lighting and sanity of the occupants!), she has to reduce the solar heating effect through the windows in the summer. One way to do this is to plant tall deciduous trees in front of the windows as shown in Figure 1. The trees provide shading for the windows in the summer but let sunlight shine through to the windows in the winter (in Energy3D, deciduous trees have leaves from May 1st to November 30th). Figure 4 shows the effect of the two deciduous trees on the solar gain through the two south-facing windows. From the graph, she can see that the trees cut down the solar heating in the summer. As a result, the AC cost is reduced, as shown in Figure 5, whereas the heating cost is almost unchanged.

She concludes that, with the trees planted to the south of the house, the net energy cost over a year can be decreased to lower than the case of no window at all, providing an acceptable solution that takes care of view, lighting, and landscaping.

The Energy3D graphs in this blog post show that students can keep the results of previous runs (the curve of each run is labeled by a number) and superimpose new data on top of them. As the data view can get quite complex, Energy3D provides options to turn on/off data types and runs. The embedded video shows how those features work for visualizing and analyzing the simulation results.

PS: Some readers may notice that our calculations predict higher AC cost in September than in August or July. This is because when those calculations were done, the house had no window on the east or west side. Adding windows to those sides, the AC cost will peak around July or August -- even when the trees are not present.

The first paper on learning analytics for assessing engineering design?

Thursday, January 30th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1
The International Journal of Engineering Education published our paper ("A Time Series Analysis Method for Assessing Engineering Design Processes Using a CAD Tool") on learning analytics and educational data mining for assessing student performance in complex engineering design projects. I believe this is the first time learning analytics was applied to the study of engineering design -- an extremely complicated process that is very difficult to assess using traditional methodologies because of its open-ended and practical nature.

Figure 2
This paper proposes a novel computational approach based on time series analysis to assess engineering design processes using our Energy3D CAD tool. To collect research data without disrupting a design learning process, design actions and artifacts are continuously logged as time series by the CAD tool behind the scenes, while students are working on an engineering design project such as a solar urban design challenge. These "atomically" fine-grained data can be used to reconstruct, visualize, and analyze the entire design process of a student with extremely high resolution. Results of a pilot study in a high school engineering class suggest that these data can be used to measure the level of student engagement, reveal the gender differences in design behaviors, and distinguish the iterative (Figure 1) and non-iterative (Figure 2) cycles in a design process.

From the perspective of engineering education, this paper contributes to the emerging fields of educational data mining and learning analytics that aim to expand evidence approaches for learning in a digital world. We are working on a series of papers to advance this research direction and expect to help with the "landscaping" of  those fields.

Tablet-friendly STEM Resources

Friday, January 24th, 2014 by Jen Goree

Is your New Year’s resolution to find more interactive STEM resources that are tablet-ready? (We understand — we make similar technology-related resolutions, too!) We’ve optimized many of our browser-based interactive resources to run on popular tablets. By tuning our code, we’re able to make the power of our models available for your students!

For example, this Phase Change interactive runs 60% faster than it did before our recent code improvements:

And Metal Forces runs 33% faster:

Here’s a few to try now:

Biology

Physics

Chemistry

Mathematics

For even more, check out a complete list of our tablet-friendly STEM resources.

Fireplaces at odd with energy efficiency? An Energy2D simulation

Saturday, January 18th, 2014 by Charles Xie
In the winter, a fireplace is the coziest place in the house when we need some thermal comfort. It is probably something hard to remove from our living standards and our culture (it is supposed to be the only way Santa comes into your house). But is the concept of fireplace -- an ancient way of warming up a house -- really a good idea today when the entire house is heated by a modern distributed heating system? In terms of energy efficiency, the advice from science is that it probably isn't.

Figure 1. A fire is lit in the fireplace.
When the wood burns, a fireplace creates an updraft force that draws the warm air from the house to the outside through the chimney. This creates a "negative pressure" that draws the cold air from the outside into the house through small cracks in the building envelope. This is called the stack effect. So while you are getting radiation heat from the fireplace, you are also losing heat in the house at a faster rate through convection. As a result, your furnace has to work harder to keep other parts of your house warm.

Figure 2. No fire.
Our Energy2D tool can be used to investigate this because it can simulate both the stack effect and thermostats. Let's just create a house heated by a heating board on the floor as shown in the figures in this article. The heating board is controlled by a thermostat whose temperature sensor is positioned in the middle of the house. A few cracks were purposely created in the wall on the right side to let the cold air from the outside in. Their sizes were exaggerated in this simulation.

Figure 1 shows the duty cycles of the heating board within two hours when the house was heated from 0 °C to 20 °C with a fire lit in the fireplace. A heating run is a segment of the temperature curve in which the temperature increases, indicating the house is being heated. In our simulation, the duration of a heating run is approximately the same under different conditions. The difference is in the durations of the cooling runs. A more drafty house tends to have shorter cooling runs as it loses energy more quickly. Let's just count those heating runs. Figure 1 shows that 15 heating runs were recorded in this case.

Figure 2 shows the case when there was no fire in the fireplace and the fireplace door was closed. 13 heating runs were recorded in this case.

What does this result mean? This means that, in order to keep the house at 20 °C, you actually need to spend a bit more on your energy bill when the fireplace is burning. This is kind of counter-intuitive, but it may be true, especially when you have a large drafty house.

Figure 3. In a house without cracks...
How do we know that the increased energy loss is due to the cracks? Easy. We can just nudge the window and the wall on the right to close the gaps. Now we have a tight house. Re-run the simulation shows that  only 11 heating runs were recorded (Figure 3). In this case, you can see in Figure 3 that the cooling runs lasted longer, indicating that the rate of heat loss decreased.

Note that this Energy2D simulation is only an approximation. It does not consider the radiation heat gain from the fireplace. And it assumes that the fire would burn irrespective of air supply. But still, it illustrates the point.

This example demonstrates how useful Energy2D may be for all precollege students. In creating this simulation, all I did is to drag and drop, change some parameters, run the simulation, and then count the heating runs. As simple as that, this tool could be a game changer in science and engineering education in high schools or even middle schools. It really creates an abundance of learning opportunities for students to experiment with concepts and designs that would otherwise be inaccessible. Similar experiences are currently only possible at college level with expensive professional software that typically cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars for just a single license. Yet, according to some of our users, our Energy2D rivals those expensive tools to some extent (I would never claim that myself, though).

The time of infrared imaging in classrooms has arrived

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 by Charles Xie
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, FLIR Systems debuted the FLIR ONE, the first thermal imager for smartphones that sells for $349. Compared with standalone IR cameras that often cost between $1,000 and $60,000, this is a huge leap forward for the IR technology to be adopted by millions.

With this price tag, FLIR ONE finally brings the power of infrared imaging to science classrooms. Our unparalleled Infrared Tube is dedicated to IR imaging experiments for science and engineering education. This website publishes the experiments I have designed to showcase cool IR visualizations of natural phenomena. Each experiment comes with an illustration of the setup (so you can do it yourself) and a short IR video recorded from the experiment. Teachers and students may watch these YouTube videos to get an idea about how the unseen world of thermodynamics and heat transfer looks like through an IR camera -- before deciding to buy such a camera.

For example, this post shows one of my IR videos that probably can give you some idea why the northern people are spraying salt on the road like crazy in this bone-chilling weather. The video demonstrates a phenomenon called freezing point depression, a process in which adding a solute to a solvent decreases the freezing point of the solvent. Spraying salt to the road melts the ice and prevents water from freezing. Check out this video for an infrared view of this mechanism! 

Dart projects of Energy2D and Quantum Workbench announced

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Last month, Google announced Dart 1.0, a new programming language for the Web that aims to greatly accelerate Web development. Dart uses HTML5 as the UI. It can either run on the Dart Virtual Machine being built in Chrome or be compiled into JavaScript to run in other browsers. Dart can also be used to create standalone apps (I guess it is meant to be the main programming language for Google's own Chrome OS) or server-side software. An ECMA Technical Committee (TC 52) has been formed to make Dart into an international standard.

This is the moment I have been waiting for. As a developer with C/Java background, I am not convinced that JavaScript is made for large, complex projects (as Web programming seems to be moving towards) -- even after reading many articles and books about JavaScript. The facts that after ten years Google Docs still has only a tiny fraction of functionality of Word and basic functions such as positioning an image have not improved much suggest that its JavaScript front end has probably reached its limit.

Don't get me wrong. JavaScript is an excellent choice for creating interactive Web experiences. I use JavaScript extensively to create Web interfaces for interacting with the Energy2D applet. But I think it is in general healthy for the developer community if we are given more options. Recognizing the weaknesses of JavaScript, the community has already created CoffeeScript and TypeScript (supersets of JavaScript that strips off unproductive features of JavaScript) that also require compilation into native JavaScript. Dart is Google's solution to these problems that should be welcomed. To a Java developer like me, Dart provides a much better option because it returns the power of class-based object-oriented programming to developers who must create Web-based front ends. What is even sweeter is that its SDK provides a familiar Eclipse-based programming platform that makes many developers feel at home.

Excited about the potential of this new language (plus it is from Google and will be highly performant on Chrome), I am announcing the development of the Dart versions of our Energy2D and Quantum Workbench software. These software are based on complex mathematical solutions of extremely complex partial differential equations and will hopefully provide some showcases to anyone interested in Dart. This is not to say the development of the Java versions will cease. We are committed to develop and maintain both Dart and Java versions.

Hopefully 2014 will be an exciting year for us!

Visual learning analytics based on graph theory: Part I

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013 by Charles Xie
All educational research and assessment are based on inference from evidence. Evidence is constructed from learner data. The quality of this construction is, therefore, fundamentally important. Many educational measurements have relied on eliciting, analyzing, and interpreting students' constructed responses to assessment questions. New types of data may engender new opportunities for improving the validity and reliability of educational measurements. In this series of articles, I will show how graph theory can be applied to educational research.

The process of inquiry-based learning with an interactive computer model can be imagined as a trajectory of exploring in the problem space spanned by the user interface of the model. Students use various widgets to control different variables, observe the corresponding emergent behaviors, take some data, and then reason with the data to draw a conclusion. This sounds obvious. But exactly how do we capture, visualize, and analyze this process?

From the point of view of computational science, the learning space is enormous: If we have 10 controls in the user interface and each control has five inputs, there are potentially 100,000 different ways of interacting with the model. To be able to tackle a problem of this magnitude, we can use some mathematics. Graph theory is a trick that we are building into our process analytics. The publication of Leonhard Euler's Seven Bridges of Königsberg in 1736 is commonly considered as the birth of graph theory.

Figure 1: A learning graph made of two subgraphs representing two ideas.
In graph theory, a graph is a collection of vertices connected by edges: G = (V, E). When applied to learning, a vertex represents an indicator that may be related to certain competency of a student, which can be logged by software. An edge represents the transition from one indicator to another. We call a graph that represents a learning process as a learning graph.

A learning graph is always a digraph G = (V, A) -- namely, it always has directed edges or arrows -- because of the temporal nature of learning. Most likely, it is a multigraph that has multiple directed edges between one or more than one pair of vertices (it is sometimes called a multidigraph) because the student often needs multiple transitions between indicators to learn their connections. A learning graph often has loops, edges that connect back to the same vertex, because the student may perform multiple actions related to an indicator consecutively before making a transition. Figure 1 shows a learning graph that includes two sets of indicators, each for an idea.

Figure 2. The adjacency matrix of the graph in Figure 1.
The size of a learning graph is defined as the number of its arrows, denoted by |A(G)|. The size represents the number of actions the student takes during learning. The multiplicity of an arrow is the number of multiple arrows sharing the same vertices; the multiplicity of a graph, the maximum multiplicity of its arrows. The multiplicity represents the most frequent transition between two indicators in a learning process. The degree dG(v) of a vertex v in a graph G is the number of edges incident to v, with loops being counted twice. A vertex of degree 0 is an isolated vertex. A vertex of degree 1 is a leaf. The degree of a vertex represents the times the action related to the corresponding indicator is performed. The maximum degree Δ(G) of a graph G is the largest degree over all vertices; the minimum degree δ(G), the smallest.

The distance dG(u, v) between two vertices u and v in a graph G is the length of a shortest path between them. When u and v are identical, their distance is 0. When u and v are unreachable from each other, their distance is defined to be infinity ∞. The distance between two indicators may reveal how the related constructs are connected in the learning process.

Figure 3. A more crosscutting learning trajectory between two ideas.
Two vertices u and v are called adjacent if an edge exists between them, denoted by u ~ v. The square adjacency matrix is a means of representing which vertices of a graph are adjacent to which other vertices. Figure 2 is the adjacency matrix of the graph in Figure 1, the trace (the sum of all the diagonal elements in the matrix) of which represents the number of loops in the graph. Having known the adjacency matrix, we can apply the spectral graph theory to study the properties of a graph in relationship to the characteristic polynomial, eigenvalues, and eigenvectors of the matrix (because the adjacency matrix of a learning graph is a digraph, the eigenvalues are often complex numbers). For example, the eigenvalues of the adjacency matrix may be used to reduce the dimensionality of the dataset into clusters.

Figure 4. The adjacency matrix of the graph in Figure 3.
How might learning graphs be useful for analyzing student learning? Figure 3 gives an example that shows a different behavior of exploration between two ideas (such as heat and temperature or pressure and temperature). In this hypothetical case, the student has more transitions between two subgraphs that represent the two ideas and their indicator domains. This pattern can potentially result in better understanding of the connections between the ideas. The adjacency matrix shown in Figure 4 has different block structures than that shown in Figure 2: The blocks A-B and B-A are much sparser in Figure 2 than in Figure 4. The spectra of these two matrices may be quite different and could be used to characterize the knowledge integration process that fosters the linkage between the two ideas.

Go to Part II.

Season’s greetings from Energy2D

Saturday, December 14th, 2013 by Charles Xie
I have been so swamped in fund raising these days that I haven't been able to update this blog for more than two months. Since it is the time of the year again, I thought I should just share a holiday video made by Matthew d'Alessio, a professor at California State University Northridge, using our signature software Energy2D.

The simulator currently attracts more than 5,000 unique visitors each month, a number that probably represents a sizable portion of engineering students studying the subject of heat transfer on the planet. Over the past year, I have received a lot of encouraging emails from Energy2D's worldwide users. Some of them even compared it with well-known engineering programs. Franco Landriscina at the University of Trieste has written Energy2D into his recent Springer book "Simulation and Learning: A Model-Centered Approach."

I am truly grateful for these positive reactions. I want to say "Thank You" for all your nice words. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing from you on this fascinating subject of fluid dynamics and heat transfer. Rest assured that the development of this program will resume irrespective of its funding. In 2014, I hope to come up with a better radiation solver, which I have been thinking for quite a long time. It turns out that simulating radiation is much more difficult than simulating convection!

Here is a tutorial video in Spanish made by Gabriel Concha.

Molecular modelers won Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 by Charles Xie
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel won the 2013 Nobel Prize For Chemistry today "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the three scientists' research in the 1970s has helped scientists develop programs that unveil chemical processes. "The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton's classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics," the academy said. "Previously, chemists had to choose to use either/or." Together with a few earlier Nobel Prizes in quantum chemistry, this award consecrates the field of computational chemistry.

Incidentally, Martin Karplus is my postdoc co-adviser Georgios Archontis's thesis adviser at Harvard. Georgios is one of the earlier contributors to CHARMM, a widely-used package of computational chemistry. CHARMM was the computational tool that I used when working with Georgios almost 15 years ago. In collaboration with Martin, Georgios and I were studying glycogen phosphorylase inhibitors based on a free energy perturbation analysis using CHARMM. In another project with Spyros Skourtis, I wrote a multi-scale simulation program that couples molecular dynamics and quantum dynamics to study electron transfer in proteins and DNA molecules (i.e., use Newton's Equation of Motion to predict the trajectories of atoms, construct the Hamiltonian time series, and solve the time-dependent Schrodinger equation using the Hamiltonian series as the input).

We are thrilled by this news because much of the computational kernels of our Molecular Workbench software was actually inspired by CHARMM. The Molecular Workbench also advocates a multiscale philosophy and pedagogical approach, but for linking concepts at different scales with simulations in order to help students connect the dots and build more unified pictures about science (see the image above).

We are glad to be part of the "Karplus genealogy tree," as Georgios put it when replying my congratulatory email. We hope that through our grassroots work in education, the power of molecular simulation from the top of the scientific research pyramid will enlighten millions of students and ignite their interest and curiosity in science.