Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold: WPI Researchers Awarded Grant to Find Just the Right Classroom Environment for Learning

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NSF-funded project to measure how factors such as classroom temperature impact students.

WPI students (from left) Kaitlyn Smith and Christopher Mercer.

WPI students (from left) Kaitlyn Smith and Christopher Mercer.

“Environmental quality is a big factor that affects people’s comfort and cognitive performance.”- Shichao Liu, Assistant Professor of Architectural Engineering at WPI

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have been awarded a $299,991 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop technologies that detect and boost student engagement in lessons by controlling indoor physical environmental factors such as temperature, ventilation, and lighting.

Shichao Liu, assistant professor of architectural engineering, is principal investigator of the three-year project. Co-principal investigators at WPI are Steven Van Dessel, associate professor of architectural engineering, and Jacob Whitehill, assistant professor of computer science. Jianshun Zhang, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Syracuse University, will be a consultant.

The project tackles a fundamental issue with indoor physical environments created by heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and other building systems. Current design practice aims to make indoor environments as uniform as possible. Yet in classroom environments, different students feel distinct levels of comfort or discomfort under the same conditions, and that can impact their ability to learn.

“When we look at how student learning can be improved, a lot of researchers start from the perspective of pedagogy and teaching materials,” Liu said. “As an engineer in building sciences, I know indoor environmental quality is a big factor that affects people’s comfort and cognitive performance.”

To start, the researchers will use computer vision to film the faces of 24 undergraduate volunteers as they watch recorded lectures in different simulated settings—a lecture hall, a computer lab, and a virtual reality environment. Temperature, light, and ventilation will be varied, too.

Then the researchers will use the collected data and machine learning to develop automated detectors of student engagement and comfort. Such detectors could ultimately be installed in smart buildings to monitor and adjust classroom temperature to support student learning.

“It’s easy to overlook the non-pedagogical factors that can impact students’ learning, but in fact, there is mounting evidence that the indoor environment and thermal comfort can affect students’ performance significantly,” said Whitehill, who is also a faculty member in WPI’s Learning Science and Technology program. “This interdisciplinary project gives us the opportunity to explore new ways of how new sensors and machine learning can support students’ learning.”

Finally, the researchers will study how a second group of 24 students engage in recorded lectures after a change in air flow from a fan or a mild thermal stimulus from a wristband device designed to make the wearer feel warmer or cooler.

A larger goal of the project is to inform the way buildings are designed and operated to account for how humans perform in them.

“In addition to the current focus on learning environments, insights from this study can also lead to development of new tools to investigate how people and buildings interact in more general terms,” Van Dessel said. “Approaches developed as part of this project may be adapted to also study, for example, the impact of environmental factors, such as color or sound, and how they affect well-being.”

The research builds on a $10,000 seed grant awarded in 2018 by WPI’s Office of the Dean of Engineering.

“I am delighted to see that the seed grant funding of the collaboration between Shichao Liu, Jake Whitehill, and Steven Van Dessel has been partly instrumental in enabling their successful application for this NSF Award,” said Winston Soboyejo, WPI senior vice president and provost. “I look forward to their continued success, as we strive to develop WPI’s efforts in the area of the Built Environment.”

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI, the global leader in project-based learning, is a distinctive, top-tier technological university founded in 1865 on the principle that students learn most effectively by applying the theory learned in the classroom to the practice of solving real-world problems. Recognized by the National Academy of Engineering with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, WPI’s pioneering project-based curriculum engages undergraduates in solving important scientific, technological, and societal problems throughout their education and at more than 50 project centers around the world. WPI offers more than 50 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs across 14 academic departments in science, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. Its faculty and students pursue groundbreaking research to meet ongoing challenges in health and biotechnology; robotics and the internet of things; advanced materials and manufacturing; cyber, data, and security systems; learning science; and more.


Colleen Bamford Wamback, Associate Director of Public Relations
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts
508-831-6775 ; 508-688-4858 (cell)

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