Students today, and the responsible leaders of tomorrow, must have a broad-based education. They must be able to integrate several disciplines to get ahead in companies or to run their own businesses. This is especially true of scientific or technical disciplines where narrow specialties used to prevail.
That brings me to one of my favorite programs for teaching interdisciplinary scientific thinking: the home audit. I think you'll be astonished to learn what a wealth of education is embodied by such a conceptually simple program.
I strongly recommend keeping a journal about your audit, perhaps one that has graph paper. It will help you sketch things and keep your lines straight, allow you to make graphs and charts, and generally keep your program organized.
People often say that a household must be run like a business. It can also be thought of as a micro-organism. Suppose you had five turtles in a large box; that's a turtle neighborhood! Your house is a living and breathing space within a neighborhood, too. The neighborhood is part of your community, the community is part of a town or city, and so on. And there are vital connections among them.
Start with a simple floor plan of your house or living space. Now pick a room. It may be most fun to start with your child's room, or the room he or she spends the most time in. Where is it in relation to the rest of the house? Does it have walls facing outside or all internal walls? These are important characteristics for principles that follow.
Sit in the room for a while and, using your senses, think about what's in it. Furniture, toys, clothes, lights - these are the things you can see or touch. What about sounds from clocks, radios, or televisions? Now think about where these things come from. How were they made? What did they cost?
Let's move on to the more difficult things. Heat comes into the room. Where does it come from and where does it go? Look at those electrical sockets and light fixtures. You'd be amazed how many people believe that electricity just sort of "exists" in the walls. Consider the windows. Light and heat come through them during the day; heat and air escapes from them, too. Is there a garbage can? Where does this material go after you "throw it out"?
Don't forget the even less tangible things, such as noise from outside or the air you are breathing every few seconds? Incidentally, there is a concern that airtight new homes are actually making the occupants sick. Viruses, trace chemicals from rugs, mites, and other tiny irritants get trapped. Older homes that leak a lot don't have this problem.
By thinking about these things, you have mentally constructed a qualitative audit, or a sense of the materials that come into and go out of a set of boundaries. From a scientific perspective, these are chemical and physical processes. But environmental and biological processes are taking place, too.
The Measure of a Man
Now you can take this audit further and start to measure some of the things you thought about. Start with a budget, simply a description of money coming in and money going out (and money being "stored" earning interest or borrowed and paying interest). For a bedroom, this may be kind of static, or boring. But wait! Are you budgeting for everything? Take an inventory of everything in the room and determine a price. You can also budget for non-physical things - energy, waste, and noise.
To learn something about the way heat moves into or out of the room, take a simple thermometer and measure the temperature at different times of the day. Measure it at different locations in the room (near the window for example or on the floor vs. near the ceiling) or at different times. Take note of whether the furnace is on. Based on the relative size of the room to the rest of the house, can you proportion the amount of hot or cool air going into the room?
If it is winter time, you and your kids can play energy detectives and discover where heat is being lost. Are the windows well sealed? Is the closet area well insulated? (You can tell by placing your hand on walls in the closet and compare their temperature to other walls that face to the outside.)
You can make this exercise as simple or complex as you wish, tailoring it to the age and capabilities of your children. For small kids, use your hands to gauge temperature. For middle kids, use a thermometer and have them write the measurements periodically. For high-school kids, you might consider buying a simple temperature monitor that records the temperature continuously on a piece of paper.
You can also introduce concepts involving the computer and automation by having your kids think about how you might control certain aspects of the room. For a younger kid, run an experiment to see if covering the window with a cloth (or curtains) will prevent the convective flow of heat out the window. For older kids, ask how they might design a regulator that would measure the temperature of the room, then signal your furnace to turn on or off (that's how your home thermostat works).
Suppose you had a computer with a modem. Could you design or think up a system that would allow you to call the computer, tell it that you are coming home in one hour, and have it raise the thermostat in the house?
The same auditing principles that you applied to your child's room can be applied to other rooms. Remember, you are not only understanding what is in the room, but how it is connected (by heat, natural and artificial light, electricity, noise from other places) to the rest of the house.
The kitchen is a particularly exciting room to audit because it uses water, electricity, heat, and has lots of garbage outflow, food inflows, and so on. You can discuss with your kids all the chemicals (salt, soap, lemon juice, etc.) that are used in the kitchen and the changes that take place when two chemicals are mixed together or cooked. Use cooking as an opportunity to teach your kids about how materials change physically and chemically. Understanding these changes is important when you are auditing a space.
An Ecological System
You see how a room is connected to the rest of the house; now let's move beyond the abode to see what connects your home to the community around you. How did your electricity arrive? By a series of wires which links your house with a vast network called the electricity grid. If you burn natural gas in your furnace, then you are connected to a vast gas distribution system. People who use wood or oil are connected by trucks that deliver the fuel or places where you can buy fuel. And as unpleasant as it may be, the sewers, water distribution systems, and landfills also connect your home to that vast space out there!
It seems that people who complain about environmental problems often do so as if they are disconnected from this web of energy services. When you start connecting your home to the vast network beyond your walls, you soon realize that almost everything is connected in some way.
Environmentalists like to consider an ecological system as if human beings are leeches on that system, or that industry is a threat to that system. But the industrial process can be considered an ecology of its own. In fact, the term industrial ecology is emerging as a means of describing all the positive ways industry is changing to reduce environmental impact.
I brought up the turtles at the beginning for a reason. If you put a turtle in a box, poke air holes into it, then add some grass, bugs, and dirt, you've created a tiny ecosystem. Your home is an ecological system as much as it is an economic system (note the prefix eco- in both). It is part of larger ecosystem, too, called a community, country, nation - or planet.
Learning how the systems in your home work, and how they are connected to the rest of the community, is a great way to start "Thinking Like a Scientist" both locally . . . and globally.
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