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A Next-Generation Community College Curriculum for Energy-Efficient High-Performance Building Operations

Hands-on HVAC training facilities

Figure 1. Hands-on HVAC training facilities at Laney College

Advanced cognitive skills, including problem solving and systems thinking, are critical for success in today's information-based workplace. The need for these skills is particularly compelling for those who manage the equipment, systems, and energy use of buildings.

With these issues in mind, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD), and the Peralta Community College District, which includes Laney College in Oakland, California, conducted a focus group and follow-on interviews with approximately 50 building industry stakeholders to discuss building operator education at the community college level. Participants included heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC&R) and controls design and service companies; equipment manufacturers; commissioning providers; energy-management professionals; public and private building owners; local, state, and federal government representatives; and educators.

Participants identified numerous gaps between current building operator education and workplace needs and agreed that many problems in achieving and maintaining energy savings in buildings can be traced to lack of knowledge about how building systems should be used, monitored, and maintained. Participants also noted many specific skills needed by building operators and technicians, ranging from technical knowledge to communications and financial analysis, which are addressed in graduate-level and continuing education programs but rarely in community college classes.

Based on the focus group assessment, EETD researchers are developing a new curriculum in collaboration with five community colleges, along with an innovative simulation-based learning tool to teach students how to commission and operate high-performance buildings. The materials emphasize energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality related to HVAC systems. The initiative will span three years, with support from the National Science Foundation.

This initiative resonates with the fact that public and private energy management R&D portfolios are moving away from a "stovepipe" approach to an "integrated systems" approach. Graduates of the new curriculum will be qualified for emerging professional specialties such as commissioning and retrofitting buildings, managing building energy use, maintaining optimal building performance, and analyzing and correcting common system faults.

Improved Laney College Curriculum & Learning Environment

In its current form, Laney College's 30-year-old Environmental Control Technology (ECT) program is similar to other community college HVAC&R programs (see Figure 1). The focus group helped define major updates and revisions to Laney's curriculum, including:

  • adoption of new instructional technologies and methods;
  • creation of new program strands associated with emerging occupational clusters;
  • addition of physics, statistical methods, communications courses, and a rigorous associate degree option;
  • addition of advanced courses to serve both current students and incumbent workers needing skills upgrades; and
  • creation of an articulated sequence of courses, allowing students to transfer in from high-schools and, on to four-year institutions.

This transformed curriculum includes 18 new courses and differs significantly from typical community college offerings. Among the unique subjects addressed are:

  • building commissioning and retro-commissioning;
  • advanced digital control systems operation as well as data collection, analysis, and correlation with operating equipment and systems;
  • system-level analysis and troubleshooting;
  • specialized topics such as high-tech facilities and ultra-cold facilities operation;
  • indoor air-quality analysis;
  • peak-load responsiveness analysis; and
  • biological and chemical attack preparedness.

A Buildings "Flight Simulator"

A new instructional tool will be developed and introduced: a computer-based simulator that immerses students in progressively more complex problem-solving scenarios, from components to systems. Field analysis of data and operating equipment will present students with real-world problems and issues.

The simulator will help students:

  • understand the operating principles of HVAC system components;
  • diagnose basic equipment problems at the component level;
  • use goal-oriented, problem-solving methods at a systems level;
  • focus on case-study exercises and learning-by-doing projects
GUI and elements of a problem-solving exercise

Figure 2. GUI and elements of a problem-solving exercise

The basic simulation engine for the computer-based education tool (CBE) will be the object-based program SPARK, which uses graph-theoretic methods to find computationally efficient solutions to problems described by sets of non-linear differential and algebraic equations. An "open-source" software approach will facilitate the refinement and expansion of the tool by instructors and other interested parties.

The tool's easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI)-to be developed by the Deringer Group-will explain concepts and allow the user to alternate between component and system levels (see Figure 2). The tool will use both structured exercises and open-ended exploration and solutions (i.e., no single correct answer but instead a range of acceptable solutions). The GUI will also give feedback about HVAC system and component status, track student progress toward objectives, provide or hide "Hints" and other assistance, and record student progress and scores. The tool will be usable on CD or the web and will hide the complexity of the interfaces of the simulation programs used.

The tool will contain models of control functions for each HVAC component model within SPARK to simulate typical HVAC control loops. The simulation will be usable in two modes:

  1. a virtual mode in which both the HVAC system and its controls are completely resident in software, and
  2. a hybrid mode in which the controls are a "real" hardware interface to commercial control-system components. This simulation-based environment is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way for students to learn about the real-world behaviors of the large, complex HVAC systems typically found in commercial buildings. It is impractical and expensive to use laboratory or real environments for studying such systems; moreover, if a student makes a serious error during a simulation, no real damage is done. The exercises will be structured so that as students' skills increase, the problems to be solved will become progressively more complex. Simulation-based exercises demonstrate the symptoms of faulty component and system operation, and can be used to develop and test students' diagnostic abilities.

Outreach and Articulation with Pre-College Programs and Four-year Colleges

VAV control simulator example

Figure 3. VAV control simulator example: hybrid software-hardware configuration

The existing Laney College program currently serves approximately 50 new students each year. Laney and several other community colleges will begin serving 600 new students per year as a result of the following activities:

  • Berkeley Lab's Center for Science and Engineering Education will support participation of faculty-student teams from institutions across the country in buildings energy research, exposure to building operator and technician career opportunities, and activities to promote curricular improvements at community colleges.
  • Berkeley Lab will support community college faculty and students at colleges with environmental controls technology associate degree programs so they can use the updated curriculum and innovative tools developed through this partnership. The first workshop to promote the dissemination of the tools will be held in summer 2005.
  • Students completing associate degree programs and interested in pursuing four-year degrees will be able to participate in buildings sciences research at Berkeley Lab.
  • Berkeley Lab will design, in collaboration with high school teachers, a summer physics course that allows high school students to earn concurrent credit at Laney College and Oakland Unified School District. The course will teach core physics concepts through hands-on experiences in environmental controls and technology and will introduce students to careers in environmental control technologies and energy-efficient building sciences.

— Evan Mills, Phil Haves, and Roland Otto

For more information, contact:

  • Evan Mills
  • (510) 486-6784 ; Fax (510) 486-6996

Environmental Control Technology Education for Advanced Building Operation and Management

This work is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Peralta Community College District.

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