From STEM to STEAM – The Art of Building Physics

Building Physics – an essential topic when it comes to the quality of our built environment. Be it the durability, health, comfort, or efficiency of our buildings and outdoor spaces, not one of these topics could be implemented successfully without a thorough understanding of building physics. Yet, it is the passion and understanding of very few. Why is that and how can it be changed?

I have long been intrigued by the relatively new term STEAM. STEAM – an extension of STEM; suggesting that introducing art to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths will promote creativity, curiosity and innovation.

Let me introduce you to the history of art in the context of STEM. Let’s see how the art of storytelling could be used to communicate building physics in a compelling and memorable way. And let me share my very own project; exploring the world of building physics with my children in a fun and artistic way.

Using art to communicate, memorise and engage in the areas of engineering, maths or science is by far not a recent invention. The world’s history is full of talented individuals and entire cultures that knew what magic occurs when analytical skills and creativity are combined into one.

Visualise Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, demonstrating the proportions of the human body. Is it maths, is it science, it is art? It’s all the above. Da Vinci, described as a polymaths, was an individual whose knowledge, talents and work spanned a significant number of subjects and inspired many generations to come.

Mary Shelly, whose debut novel was Frankenstein, was a woman who was well acquainted with the medical science of her time. In her novel, she narrates the dark side of science – the consequences of an artificially created human. But through her storytelling, she not only illustrates what one day could be achieved by science, she also poses the questions about responsibility, humanity and empathy – some of the key challenges of our century.

Going back even further, researchers have investigated the ability of Australia’s First Nations People to catalogue and remember huge amounts of information, be it about animals, country or the stars. Memories weren’t only highly detailed and accurate but were also passed on for thousands of years. The answer is that knowledge was encoded in songs, dance, story and place, allowing the brain to create easily accessible associations.

All great examples of combining art with STEM. What can we learn and take from these to better communicate and engage with colleagues, peers and clients? How can we use art to create a culture that fosters collaboration, innovative design and critical thinking?

Lockdown Stage 4 and another term of homeschooling – the perfect ground to explore the world of building physics with my children in a fun and artistic way. Undertaking various experiments that explore the laws of heat, moisture, light and sound have allowed me to better understand how they remember, question and learn. I am intrigued by their curiosity and freedom of expression. We certainly had fun, merging their style of exploration and communication with my technical knowledge. Let me share our very first experiment, understanding heat and cold, why different temperatures behave differently and what happens once it all gets messy towards the end.

Exploring heat and cold, we filled a bowl with warm water in which we placed an ice cube with blue food coloring. What would happen? As you can see in the photo, the dye slowly sinks to the ground, making beautiful formations – “like a jelly fish” as my daughter noticed. But why did the colour sink to the ground? Because colour is heavier than water? Simply because it was blue?

Let’s introduce something else to help us answer the question. In a new container filled with cold water, we placed a small bottle filled with hot water and red food colouring. “Look at this, the red colour is rising to the top – why is that?” We agreed that one must be heavier than the other. While the initial suggestion was that blue colour is simply heavier than red, I explained that I had only introduced the colour to visualise the phenomena of warm water being lighter than cold water. And yes, my 7-year-old son correctly recognised that “warm air is also lighter than cold air”.

But of course, children are tactile. The temptation is too big to resist getting hands dirty and turning every experiment into a final mess. But hey, what happens here? If we mix it all up, red and blue together derives in purple. But not only have we mixed up the colours, we have also mixed up the different temperatures. We no longer have warm or cold water; we have lukewarm water distributed across the container where mixed with little hands.

We now understand that warm water or air rises and cold water or air sinks. But why exactly is that? We came up with a story about warm and cold molecules. The warm molecules (here again in red) are warm because they have a lot of energy. They are so energetic that they feel like dancing; they are basically having a party. And what do you need when you feel like a decent dance? Exactly, a lot of space around you!

The cold molecules (here in blue) on the other hand lack energy. They are so cold that they closely huddle together in the hope to warm up. And as they get closer together, they manage to squeeze more molecules into the same amount of space when compared with the red party molecules. This group of shivering and squeezed up molecules becomes very heavy; and together they start to sink.

My daughter, who is 5, was more fascinated with the mixing of colours than the different temperatures themselves. So she drew what she witnessed, by using a red and blue pen, deriving in her favorite purple colour. Colour is what right now matters to her; how she sees the world and how she engaged in the conversation.

In summary, an excursion into the world of early childhood education and an experiment that forced me to focus on how I communicate, rather than what, and how much. Rather than explaining the facts, I had to develop analogies and turn the abstract into a ‘real world’ challenge. I had to entice my audience by introducing colour and water; creating a haptic experience. Together we had fun telling a story about party molecules and their chilly counterparts. I love seeing the level of detail and effort my son put into drawing each molecule as an individual character; the one that eats ice cream, the one that has fallen asleep and the one with the best dance moves  – this is how he will remember and how he may inquire and communicate in the future; having drawn and created those simple, personal and everyday associations.

Coming back to my real area of expertise as a sustainability consultant and the initial statement, understanding and applying good building physics is critical when looking to improve the performance of our buildings, what have I learned from this family experiment? I have certainly been inspired by the power of art in the context of building physics and in the future and I will make sure to introduce more of it into my work. Art is a wonderful way to communicate, engage and inspire the diverse group of stakeholders we work with in the built environment on a day to day basis. Through art we can make something as complex as building physics simple – and accessible to all.

About Our Expert

Johanna Trickett

Melbourne Sustainability Lead

Johanna leads Norman Disney & Young’s group of specialist sustainability consultants in Melbourne. Johanna has held roles as an architect, sustainability advisor, project leader, and ESD consultant, which enables her to bring a diverse range of design, engineering and stakeholder engagement experience into the projects she is working on.

During her 16 years of local and international industry experience, she has developed a keen eye for design centred sustainability solutions.

Johanna has worked across the office, education, residential, defence, and rail infrastructure sectors. She is a certified passive house designer with a great passion to establish this world leading energy performance and indoor comfort standard in Australia.

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