Ask a Modeler: How Do You Explain Complicated Physics Principles to Architecture Students?

How do you explain complicated physics principles to architecture students, like air movement or diffuse solar shading? Such considerations can have big effects on building energy use but take a lot of domain knowledge to understand.

-Building Physics Teacher

Dear Teacher,

Let’s take up this challenge in steps. First of all, we should know the background education of the student and the level of their knowledge about the physics principles. If his education is in a different field, such as biology or medicine, more effort is required to simplify such principles. If the student’s previous experience is in a related field, they will understand more quickly and easily.

This issue is like a game between your mind and the receiver’s mind. You should try to play around the principle with simple definitions and examples. At the same time, always look at the receiver’s eyes and try to grasp their understanding. Ask them directly if they understand this point or not before moving deeper to the next level of the explanation of the scientific material.

When simplifying some physics principles, the best way is to use the surrounding environment to make an experiment or to deliver the information practically.

DiagramDescription automatically generatedFor example, to teach someone about the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) of the airflow, we might explain the principle that hot air is light, and cold air is heavy. Subsequently, the cold air always settles down inside the zone, and the hot air always moves up. After that, we may sketch some simple drawings to explain the air movement. 

Next, we might create different air pressure between two zones. Heating up one zone and cooling the other one will create different air pressure between them. Subsequently, we can feel the air movement from one zone to the other.

A group of people playing basketballDescription automatically generated with low confidenceWhen someone can feel it, play it, or experience it, they will understand the thing more easily and will not forget it. This is similar to the method used at UIC Barcelona, where students created 1:1 plans of famous buildings to feel the scale and understand what is meant by the architectural plan (Estévez 2016).

In the next level of the game, if we could not deliver the information physically, we may use the freehand sketches with colors and highlights with simple descriptions regarding the topic.

For example, if we want to explain the physical meaning of the diffuse solar shading, we may start by explaining the definition of the diffuse sky radiation, it is the solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface after it had been scattered from the direct solar beam by molecules or particulates in the atmosphere. That is the reason why under an overcast sky, there is no direct sunlight, and all light results from diffused skylight radiation. We may resemble this by the light scattered by a diamond to different colors of light beams. 

That is followed by some freehand sketches to simplify the idea, either by ourselves or from the internet (de Souza 2019). 

Diagram, schematicDescription automatically generatedOther researchers stressed on the cognitive behavioral science of understanding the meaning behind physics symbols. They did not want meaningless symbol manipulation; if students use symbolic expressions, they want them to use the symbols with understanding (Sherin 2001). To help this, they made an analysis of a corpus of video tapes in which university students solve physics problems.

The most interesting experience comes from Christoph F. Reinhart and others in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Reinhart and Dogan 2015) where they made the teaching process into a challenge with entertaining students. Through the experience of playing a game, they taught building science to designers in an attractive way.

It is a challenge to deliver building physics information to someone who does not have this knowledge. You need to have some psychological and cognitive science knowledge, and moreover a lot of patience and understanding in order to manipulate the receiver’s brain to deliver this complicated information.

Heba Hassan, Dr. Eng.
Assistant Professor, Beni Suef University

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