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What Would You Teach in a Year-Long Building Science Course?

zcohenld | Posted in General Questions on

Hello everyone, Firstly, my apologies for the long post. I have a really great opportunity that I could use some advice for.

I’m a high school technology and engineering teacher in a high school that also has a STEM magnet program within it, and I teach both groups of students. My primary focus is teaching a college level aerospace engineering course, but I also get to teach courses ranging from graphic design to woodworking. I also am extremely interested in building science and have been studying it extensively by myself over the past few years.

Our school used to have a green architecture course in the STEM program that was pretty terrible. The teacher didn’t care and just taught basic Revit without any tie-in to any concepts that may be covered in the generic green architecture fields so the course died a while ago. I’ve been asked to bring the course back starting next year and teach it as a green arch/building science course. It will be open to any juniors/seniors who are in higher level math classes. These students typically are taking college courses as well and so are fairly advanced and can be pushed pretty hard to succeed in some more complex concepts.

So I’m working on the general outline of what the yearlong curriculum will look like and was curious, what would you include in a course for students interested in this field? They may not pursue it as a career, but they still want to learn and succeed in it. These students do a lot of computer work and simulations, and barely ever get their hands dirty, so I want to both be able to teach the theory and concepts in addition to applying them to things we could build. I’ve come across the Building Science Education Roadmap developed by the Dept of Energy and that is extremely helpful, but also was hoping to hear from others knowledgeable in the field.

Money-wise we don’t have unlimited funding, but we’re better than most school situations. We have a couple of grants for the STEM program that I can tap into and since we’ve been online all year not much of the money has been spent. So this would be a good time to purchase any equipment, but not consumables, that I may need.

So again, what kinds of concepts would you think are important to cover? What kinds of projects could we do? Some sort of culminating project would be awesome too for the second semester, but isn’t a requirement. These students want to push boundaries too, so I’m sure if there was somewhere in the field that they could actually contribute to research or development they would readily do so.

Lastly, my boss has expressed interest in me taking an online course and getting a certification in the building science field. Any recommendations for any that are particularly better than others? I’m more interested in the course than the certification, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing to have either.

Thanks everyone for your help!

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  1. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #1

    There are some free/cheap energy modeling software options out there. I'm not particularly up to speed on them myself, but we have people on here who are (let's hope Dana sees your question :-). You could use models to show energy losses and what to optimize.

    I would get into the basics of the names of different parts of the structure, especially those parts that are commonly "messed with" when doing energy retrofits. This would be things like sill plates, rim joists, window bucks, attic trusses, etc. Your students will need to understand the terminology so that they can follow along with an actual project doing real work in a real house. I would be a stickler for using the correct terminology too, since I see lots of confusion in this area in my profession work as a consultant.

    You'll want to go through the various common insulation materials and the pros and cons of each. For most, that means fiberglass, mineral wool, blown and batt versions of both of those plus blown cellulose, and the three main types of rigid foam (polyiso, EPS, and XPS). Remember that there are several kinds of EPS with very different physical properties, and two common types of facers with polyiso. XPS is usually avoided if you're trying to be green, but you'll want to talk about it -- and it does have it's niche applications.

    Touch on spray foam a little. Be sure to explain the difference between open and close cell spray foam, and between two-part spray foam and one-part "canned foam". Explain where spray foam makes sense (primarily rough foundation walls and unvented roofs), and where it's benefits are largely wasted (walls). Explain that canned foam is good for air sealing larger openings, but that caulk is better for very small openings such as gaps between sistered studs.

    Be sure to talk about the difference between vapor BARRIERS and vapor RETARDERS. This is important stuff that many don't understand.

    You're going to end up doing a bit of introduction to architecture most likely, at least as far as framing goes, because some of that knowledge is needed for full understanding of the other stuff.

    You could get into the mechanicals a bit too. I personally would try to avoid getting into all the "carbon" stuff, but that's me. I would focus on energy efficiency (i.e. heat pumps can get you more BTUs per input energy compared to an eelctric resistance or gas burner) instead, and some cost/benefit info is very important. You don't want to have your students wanting to put in all the most expensive stuff to eek out that last 0.01% of performance, but making the house too expensive for a buyer. Things need to be realistic, so at least some emphasis on sticking within the limits of the market is really important. I see too many green programs that completely skip over that fact, and that's part of the reason we have some regulations that drive up costs with little, if any, real benefit.

    At the end of the day, something needs to GET BUILT, so I'd keep that focus throughout your course. We're in an industry that has to deal with the physical world, which forces a certain amount of realism. Don't let your students ever lose sight of the fact that they are building a REAL building, that REAL people need to buy and live in. It's too easy to get lost in all the little details and miss the big picture.

    BTW, I love what you're trying to do. I am a sort of "outsourced" STEM instructor in a way for several school districts in my area. Students select various industry options and get to come visit facilities I work with (there are other companies in the area that offer oppurtunities in other industries too). I expose them to the Telecom industry. It's probably some of the most fun I get to have actually. Feel free to reach out to me if I can help you in any way.

    One last thing: you might try reaching out to Allison Bailes. He has a good writing style and might be able to give you some ideas for your class too.


  2. maine_tyler | | #2

    Building science is such a conglomerate of sciences that it can be difficult to hone in on a simple curriculum.
    I wonder what prerequisites will be?

    My advice should be considered only as a person interested in this stuff and with a science background, so salt as you may.

    I believe focusing on fundamental principles gives people the most ammunition to tackle the greatest variety and complexity of problems likely to be encountered in the BS world.
    On the other hand, it's easy for the education system to feel like it's teaching us arbitrary concepts with no definitive application, so you have a neat opportunity to show the applications. Finding the balance would be key, I imagine.

    The 4 control elements of the structure being Water, Air, Vapor, Thermal gives a pretty good hint at some of the fundamentals to cover. Studying the psychometric chart, heat transfer mechanisms (thermodynamics), basic fluid dynamics, energy/entropy/enthalpy, etc. —and most importantly, how these things interact in real systems.

    What I think can be effective is leading in with a real world problem (rather than the fundamental concept) then drawing in the fundamental concepts as needed to solve and understand the real world problem. This provides context and makes those fundamentals feel relevant to life.

    Other aspects of building design could make a long list. There's structural considerations and material sciences, for example. Both monumental fields in their own right. It depends on what your want to be the focus. Certainly it can't all be comprehensively covered.

  3. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #3

    A local community college here started a sustainable construction program and used the Pretty Good House guideposts as a starting point: This is the program:

  4. Paul Eldrenkamp | | #4

    To respond to your question about on-line training, I would strongly recommend that you take Marc Rosenbaum's course on zero net energy buildings:

    There's a session starting on March 15 and running through May 23.

    Also at the top of my list would be Joe Lstiburek's Building Science Fundamentals, coming up in April and May:

    Take both. They'll complement each other nicely, for your purposes. Marc's class requires homework (very well thought out homework), but Joe's does not, so it would not be inconceivable to take them simultaneously, but if that's not feasible maybe take Marc's first, then Joe's when it's offered next.

  5. ohioandy | | #5

    This is fantastic. It sounds like your students are already streamed pretty firmly into college and white collar jobs, but maybe you can spark interest and plant seeds to get some smart kids into the trades, particularly after the dirty hands unit. We need them out here. I hope (and expect) that your course will be quite popular, maybe they'll ask you to teach a version over at the vocational high school, too.

    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #8

      +1 for that -- we need more going into the trades. For many, the trades are a better option than college and they are IN DEMAND! We have a massive shortage of skilled trades workers coming in the next 10-15 years. Everyone in the industry knows that, but the people helping kids decide on careers don't seem to.

      For any of your students considering fields in engineering (my field), or architecture, I would strongly recommend they do as much field work as possible. Find internships, work on projects, many of these things could actually make them some money to help pay for school. I paid for my college working in the trades, for example. It's nice to not have lots of student loans after school too.

      Engineering these days does not do enough field work in my opionion, and the result is graduating engineers who don't really know what they're doing due to a lack of expierience (lots of guys in the trades have seen this). Experience here is more important than book work, and it really shows in the final product. The more hands-on stuff your students can do in their chosen fields, the better off they will be in their professional life.


      1. Andrew_C | | #9

        +10. My experiences in the automotive industry as an engineer were great, but as I looked back, it became obvious that more hands-on experience would have deepened my understanding and appreciation of many things. Both during school and early in my career, more hands-on would have been beneficial. Working on an actual building project is similar to working in a manufacturing plant. The insights gained are tremendous, regardless of where you end up focusing later in your career (e.g, front end research, design, testing, manufacturing, project management, sales, etc).
        While these were my experiences, I observed similar things in others throughout the industry. Hands-on experience is valuable.

        Any way to combine the class with a Habitat for Humanity project? Depending on the community, the level of building science used on HFH programs varies widely, but construction experience of any sort would be useful for understanding and learning tools and terminology.

        I think the kids that have a chance to participate in the class with an enthusiastic instructor will be very pleased (and lucky).

  6. GBA Editor
    Kiley Jacques | | #6

    The BS* + Beer Show Book Club is currently reading "Essential Building Science" by Jacob Racusin. From what I have gathered so far, it could be a helpful resource for you to identify key, must-cover principles. It's worth the read. And we'd love to have you join the discussion on the April 1 show.

  7. charlie_sullivan | | #7

    I've been teaching a college engineering course called "Energy Utilization" in which students learn to analyze technologies for producing energy services, including conditioned indoor spaces, DHW, appliances, transportation, lighting, etc. With all of that included, there's not much time to get deep into building science, but the students come in have enough background that we can do a decent amount--things like stack effect, window technology, psychrometrics, heat pump applications, etc. If you contact off-site I could share some more details of what we do in case that's useful, even though it's a quite different context. email is chrs (at) dartmouth dot edu.

  8. ohioandy | | #10

    An idea for a field project that, depending on your local context, might be really impactful for everyone involved: work with your local Habitat for Humanity or other homebuilding agency on analyzing their current work and proposing changes. Some chapters are already all over this, maybe even have a staff person responsible, but some...aren't.

  9. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #11

    One of the most challenging things in teaching any kind of science is overcoming people's preconceived notions when they are at odds with the science. For example, in an introductory physics course, one of the most important things to tell students is that everything you think you know about friction, momentum and inertia is wrong.

    There are a lot of areas of building science where people's common intuition is at odds with the science. Square footage of a building isn't a good determination of heating load. Heat doesn't rise. Basements don't create moisture. "Thermal mass" isn't really a thing. If you could give students a sound understanding of the fundamentals, it would serve them well in life, even if they don't pursue a career in building science. Even within the construction profession a lot of people have a shaky understanding of the relevant scientific principles.

    That's kind of what high school is all about, preparing students to go out in the world as informed citizens.

  10. PLIERS | | #12

    I’m a high school teacher and one of my courses is an introduction to healthcare careers. You want to make it easy for yourself, fun, and stay away from teaching too much theory. I would spend some time on career exploration, job outlook, salary, programs, etc. if you know anyone in field let them come in to talk to kids. If possible have them visit building sites, maybe residential or commercial building, foundation pouring, etc. Then move onto to green building, what to use, what products are green and why. Simple experiments like throwing different pieces of material in water and seeing what happens. From there I would teach them mostly handy practices. How to do multiple things in DIY fashion so even if they never enter the field they will have useful skills. Simple tasks like how to attach wood to concrete, tool safety, mixing concrete, build partition walls, etc. You can break up in sections how to build in a kitchen, bathroom, basement, roofing. A whole unit on flooring. Basically stay practical, I have taken way too many college courses that I was all theory and completely useless in real life situations. Have fun with it, it’s your own curriculum

  11. BirchwoodBill | | #13

    Do you have a shop class? I would have a hands on lab for building a wall and roof assemble down scaled. Sort of like the robotics lab. Build a small blower door and measure the work. You learn more from your mistakes.

  12. rockies63 | | #14

    I would have them have a look at the Solar Decathlon Competition which is held every two years or so and involves students (guided by instructors) from major Architectural Universities that design and build a small, sustainable home and then have it judged in an international competition.


    Design Challenge
    Build Challenge

  13. stamant | | #15

    if you got the PHIUS CPHC certification, then you' d have a solid background in building science green building fundamentals.

    any building science course should deal with the psychrometric chart, the refrigeration cycle, the stack effect.

    Interesting topics might be storm water management, energy based on phase changes, solar panels.

    if I had some smart kids, i'd guide them in safely developing home-brew arduino-based data-logging building temperatures and humidity 0r arduino based blower door building or duct testing system.

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  15. Matt_Gancz | | #17

    This is very cool! I'll admit that my answer is going to be biased because I am a physics teacher at a technical school, but I would treat the course like a focused applied physics class. The students must understand the basic principles that govern structures, mainly, pressure differences, heat and heat transfer, vapor drive, Ohm's law, etc. From there, the shaded part of the Venn diagram can be filled in with real materials that are used in construction.

    One thing I would advise is to build sections of real assemblies at some point. Scale models have their place, but full-dimension wall or roof assemblies will help students develop the kinesthetic intelligence to deal with real materials. This will be great for the young men and women in your school!

  16. BSBot | | #18


    It's fantastic to hear about your initiative to rejuvenate the green architecture course with a focus on building science. Given your background and the interests of your students, here are some thoughts on curriculum content, project ideas, and further education for yourself:

    Curriculum Content
    Foundations of Building Science: Start with the basics of heat transfer, moisture management, and air quality. This will establish a strong foundation for understanding how buildings interact with their environment.
    Sustainable Design Principles: Cover essential sustainable design strategies, such as passive solar design, energy efficiency, and the use of renewable energy sources. Include discussions on the importance of site selection and landscape integration.
    Materials and Resources: Explore green materials and technologies, emphasizing their lifecycle, embodied energy, and recyclability. This could include innovative insulation materials, low-impact construction techniques, and the concept of circular economy in architecture.
    Building Performance Simulation: Introduce software tools for energy modeling and daylight analysis. This will help students understand the theoretical aspects of building science and apply them to real-world scenarios.
    Green Building Standards and Certification Systems: Teach students about LEED, Passive House, Living Building Challenge, etc., to give them an overview of how green buildings are evaluated and certified.
    Project Ideas
    Design-Build Projects: Small-scale design-build projects like a solar-powered workstation, a green roof for a school building, or an efficient tiny house model can provide hands-on experience.
    Energy Audit and Retrofit Plan: Have students conduct an energy audit of a part of the school and propose a retrofit plan to improve its energy efficiency. This project can involve both analysis and practical recommendations.
    Sustainable Community Design Project: Task students with designing a sustainable micro-community, focusing on aspects like energy use, water management, and community gardens. This project can culminate in a detailed presentation or a model.
    Culminating Project
    Innovative Green Solution: Encourage students to identify a problem within the school or local community and develop a sustainable solution. This could range from improving the school's waste management system to designing a community-based renewable energy project.
    Professional Development
    For your own development, courses offered by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) or the Passive House Institute (PHI) are highly regarded in the field of building science. Additionally, the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) offers courses and certifications that might align with your interests and needs. Look for courses that not only lead to certification but also offer deep, practical insights into building science, energy efficiency, and sustainable design.

    By incorporating these elements into your curriculum, you'll not only equip your students with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and innovate in the field of green architecture and building science but also inspire them to think critically about the impact of buildings on the environment and society.

    Best of luck with your course, and feel free to reach out to the community as you develop your curriculum. There's a wealth of knowledge and experience here that can help guide and refine your approach.

  17. Expert Member
    DCcontrarian | | #19

    I'd teach spam detection and removal.

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