“Cool” science — should we air condition the tropics?

People have been wondering how we will approach science at Triangle Learning Community middle school (opening in the fall of 2013).  Here’s an example of how a compelling science article in the New York Times might lead us to have a discussion that could expand to a two-week unit. That two-week unit might involve reading and discussing a topical book –referenced in the article — about the connections between air conditioning and climate change. If you read to the end of this very long blog post (sorry — I “got into” the topic), you will see how we will not only tie our work to the Common Core standards for science, but exceed those standards.

A few days ago, my friend Scott Morrison, a PhD candidate at UNC’s School of Education, sent me an article he read this summer, titled The Cost of Cool.  He asked how I might teach such an article at Triangle Learning Community (TLC) and suggested that I blog about it. I’m now taking requests for other topics 🙂

I decided to blog about the article Scott sent, because it is fascinating, and it’s not too long — please click the link above (or this one here) to read it, then come back when you are done.

The article (which I hope you read) notes these three facts:

Fact 1: Nearly all of the world’s booming cities are in the tropics and will be home to an estimated one billion new consumers by 2025. As temperatures rise, they — and we — will use more air-conditioning.

Fact 2: Air-conditioners draw copious electricity, and deliver a double whammy in terms of climate change, since both the electricity they use and the coolants they contain result in planet-warming emissions.

Fact 3: Scientific studies increasingly show that health and productivity rise significantly if indoor temperature is cooled in hot weather. So cooling is not just about comfort.

So how might we approach this article at TLC?  First of all, we will take articles we read as opportunities to expand our vocabulary. Most middle school students won’t know what “copious” means in “Fact 2” above, where it says that “Air conditioners draw copious electricity” — we would look that word up:

We would also look up other words from the article, such as “vexing” and “quandaries,” because if we don’t do that, we’re lost by the end of the first paragraph, which reads:

THE blackouts that left hundreds of millions of Indians sweltering in the dark last month underscored the status of air-conditioning as one of the world’s most vexing environmental quandaries.

Also, if I’m a typical middle student just starting to pay attention to the world, I probably don’t know anything about the blackouts this summer in India.  This article was published in August 2012, and it mentions hundreds of millions of Indians sweltering in the dark last month — that means July.  How can I get up to speed about that blackout? If only there were some way to search the internet…  hmmm….

We would click on one of those articles and get some context, so we’d understand why the article was particularly topical.

We’d also review big numbers — one of our first units at the start of the 6th grade program at TLC will be a look at big and small numbers — so that we understand the significance of India having a population of about 1.2 billion people.  That means that when 25% of India loses power, that’s the equivalent of the entire United States — 300 million people — losing power. For context, here are some statistics about world population by country:

Okay, let’s assume we unpacked the vocabulary from the article (potential TLC students, did you look up “vexing” and “quandaries” yet?) and also discussed some of the basic background that students had questions about — such as the blackouts in India — so that we are ready to dive into the substance of the article.

We face quite a dilemma.  More than a billion people’s lifestyles are improving — particularly in tropical climates — and they want the things most Americans have and take for granted — refrigerators, automobiles, and of course, air conditioning. These things will contribute to global warming, so maybe they should not have these things.

But studies show that air conditioning improves productivity.  There’s a sort-of joke in the last paragraph of the New York Times article (you did read it all the way to the end, right?)

I was listening from my living room in New York on a steamy Sunday morning. Given the topic of our conversation, I had the air-conditioner off, and the temperature was 85 or so. I couldn’t concentrate.

We would look into these studies about the effects of climate on productivity (biology and sociology), and a good place to start might be the book referenced in the article, Losing Our Cool.  That’s a link to the web page for the book, and here’s a picture of the book, courtesy of Amazon.com:

That sounds like an interesting book — I wish there were some way to get our hands on that book to see if we might want to buy it.  If only there were a big place with lots of books you could borrow… you know, like the Durham Public Library…

I just requested the first available copy, and in a few days I will swing by the library, and this book will be waiting on the shelf for me. I love the library.  We will make regular use of the library at TLC.

This is the way we will operate at TLC — if we get interested in a topic, we will pursue it in a systematic way.  We could talk with experts at Duke’s School of the Environment, for example.  I just found out that the dean of the School of the Environment has a blog:


If we were to do our homework and email Dean Chameides what we’d learned about air conditioning (AC) and its effect on global warming, I bet he’d agree to meet with us — either in person or at least via a phone conversation.

Let’s do a bit more applied science and math based on this article:

An expert quoted in the article “has estimated that, based on its climate and the size of the population, the cooling needs of Mumbai alone could be about a quarter of those of the entire United States, which he calls ‘one scary statistic.’ ”

Okay, so let’s think about that one — first of all, let’s find a map of Mumbai, to see where it’s located on India’s west coast:

Mumbai’s population is about 20 million, which seems tiny compared to the US population of more than 300 million (and keep in mind that the US population is only about 4.5% of the world’s population)

So how could one city, Mumbai, have the same cooling needs as 25% of the US, or more than 75 million people?

Well, most of the US is not tropical.  As we can see in this map of average annual temperatures in the US, it’s only the areas at the bottom of the map with the browns (over 70 degrees), reds (65-70), and maybe the oranges (60-65) that need year-round AC:

By contrast, India is really hot all the time — on the map below, areas in brown average over 81.5 degrees annually, and the yellow areas (including Mumbai, which we can now locate on the map) average 77-81.5 degrees.

“Oh” says a middle school student, “now I get how the 20 million people in Mumbai could have the same cooling needs as 75 million people in the US — people in the US generally live in cooler climates than in India.”

Assuming students got into this topic and wanted to learn more, we could decide to do a two-week unit on this topic.  That would mean that we might plan time in February to spend time learning about and discussing this topic in depth, perhaps consulting a chapter or two from that book “Losing Our Cool” (the teachers would preview the book to see if it made sense to use with students).  This all came about thanks to Scott’s article suggestion.  Thanks, Scott!  Note that friends of TLC will regularly suggest compelling prompts such as this one.

As a final project for this unit, each student might write an opinion piece that explains his/her position on what we should do moving forward. We might decide on essential questions such as these:

Should there be restrictions on how much AC people in tropical areas are allowed to use? Should people in the US have to cut back on AC use?

Students would explore some variation of those possibilities (not all students have to do exactly the same thing at TLC), and look into the science behind each possibility for a few weeks.  We would then each put together a proposed plan of action that showed what we learned.  We’d learn applied math, science, research and language skills (by reading and writing about what we learned).

We could also show that our exploration of air conditioning far exceeds what most 7th classes would do to meet this standard from the Common Core (click here for the full list of common core science standards for 6-8 grade)

I’m not a fan of a standard that tells students what to conclude (see highlighted box at the end), and it’s not enough to know that students need to “monitor the atmosphere.” We are monitoring the atmosphere and scientists have determined that global warming is real.

The big question is what to do about it. That’s a huge question, but having students come up with an informed opinion — based on scientific research — about one part of the problem — air conditioning — seems like a great place to start.

And as noted above, if TLC were in session, we would certainly be discussing Hurricane Sandy.  That will be the topic of my next blog post.  Well, that or the election on Tuesday — that’s a kind of big story, too 🙂

P.S.  In looking more closely at the Common Core, this unit would also address this 8th grade standard about energy conservation and transfer, which is what air conditioning does.  And as part of this unit, each student would also demonstrate, via blog posts or videos, that they understand — really understand — how an air conditioner works.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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