Optimal Learning Environments Are Fanned With A Comfort Range

Public school districts across America lack robust budgets and are plagued with student performance pressures and stressed teachers. Add in trying to teach in classrooms that are too hot or cold and that equals unfocused students.

Some states, like New York, recently passed legislation that requires schools to have air-conditioning, said Michael Deru, an engineering manager with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado.

“A learning environment should be very comfortable so students aren’t distracted,” Deru said. “We will see more and more states adopting similar mandates in the coming years because students can’t learn when they are too hot or cold.”

To save on the front end, schools in some states installed window air conditioning units in their school buildings, which are very inefficient and are cost prohibitive over time. According to Deru, a better solution would be optimizing an entire HVAC system to impact how classroom temperature affects learning. This would allow school districts to save money, reduce energy and provide students and teachers a more comfortable learning environment. This shift to a more holistic approach to energy related upgrades is known as energy systems optimization.

There is a range of 68-75 degrees fahrenheit that provides the best thermal comfort, Deru said. A school’s facilities manager may know the sweet spot, an exact temperature where the least amount of complaints land at his feet, and continuously adjust the building temperature to minimize those complaints.

Thermal comfort, or temperature plus relative humidity, is perhaps more important than hitting an exact temperature when it comes to how classroom temperature affects learning, he said.

“Temperature floats and humidity changes a lot based on time of year, weather and people,” Deru said. “Moving air a little bit can make a big difference.”

Often fans are used to provide the same level of thermal comfort at a higher temperature, but there is a limit to how effective alone air movement can be, he said.

In a September 2016 White Paper on Smart Ceiling Fans, NREL found that raising the cooling setpoint by 4 degrees could reduce building energy costs by as much as 11 percent. And with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in energy costs, that adds up to a lot of money that can then be put toward learning resources.

“Thermal comfort is a key component to indoor environmental quality,” he said. “But other things like noise, odor, air quality, and light are all factors good designers should take into account for learning spaces, not just how classroom temperature affects learning. The goal is to optimize all these factors to reduce distractions so students can concentrate on learning.”

Deru said while there is no exact environment that students learn best, the fight for better learning environments will continue as technology advances. Air quality will continue to improve as odor is better able to be reduced, noise is cancelled,  and humidity decreases, he said.

“When you can make an impact on a student’s achievement by modernizing infrastructures, you should do it in the most sustainable way possible and that means approaching the situation holistically to get the best results,” he said.

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