A CBD school on a quest to go off grid: An innovative digital twin STEM project

The school’s roof-top solar panel and performance dashboard. Photo: Ditigal Twinning Australia

When a school community member at St Mary’s College in Adelaide offered to help set up a ‘digital twin’ of a new building pre-pandemic, staff were baffled.

The school’s then leader of learning innovation, Jasmin Parasiers, says teachers were initially unsure how to tackle it.

She describes a digital twin as a data management resource and tool that harmonises relevant information to create a real-time three-dimensional replica of a physical building. It’s like a ‘cyber’ twin of a building, enabling some really interesting insights, monitoring and forecasts on how a building functions.

Fast forward to now, and the digital twin is up and running thanks to partnering with private firm Digital Twinning Australia (that had approached the school initially) and, more recently, an educational consultancy, Little Earthies.

Monique Green, the Leader of Learning & Innovation at St Mary’s College, talks about the latest milestone.

“We have just completed our program in Year 5/6 classrooms and Year 9 STEM.

“In Year 5/6 students explored what it means to lie ‘off the grid’ with the end result being how we can decrease our environmental footprint at the school and in Year 9 students were designing sustainable homes to then model in the digital twinning software. Their exploration led them to think about how we could use renewable energy sources such as geothermal energy at our school and how we can use fungi as a type of insulation for our homes.

The school’s progress relies on the “excellent relationship” it’s developed with DTA over the past few years. She says.

“They have the product and were really kind to let us use the product and now we need to trial the content.”

The five-week learning program was inquiry-based and design-thinking. It aimed to upskill students in using software to harness the digital twin for sustainability learning. An expert from DTA also visited the school to guide students on the technology.

“The challenge of the 21st-century learning space is that teachers are becoming facilitators more than the traditional talk and chalk, font of all knowledge. While we’ve run this project so far as extra curricula, we have backward planned it to assess the work students are doing through co-design with a general capabilities-driven model.”

So far, students from years 4 to 12 have worked on the digital twin, collecting and feeding in data to assess how long the new building’s solar panels can power the computer lab, among other things. They’re also planning to build an electric vehicle charging station in front of the school and eventually work out how to make the school carbon-neutral. St Mary’s College was also among eight schools Questacon selected from around Australia to present their STEM projects in 2021.

A blue disk at right, reflected as a small one to the left … that’s what a digital twin is … a three-dimensional online replica of a real-life asset.

A data tool that opens doors

St Mary’s College is perfectly placed to have a digital twin — it’s based in Adelaide’s CBD on almost a full city block. Most of the school’s buildings have three storeys, so “there’s quite a bit of roof space we can use”, she says. There are five buildings with a footprint of about 150m by 100m.

Initially, Parasiers says she felt “out of her depth” when Adelaide company, Digital Twinning Australia, approached St Marys.

“I held a lunchtime meeting with students across the school to gauge their interest in learning about digital twins, creating three-dimensional models and coding. We started with five students who started playing with the model and asking how could we use it to modify the new building, like adding a staircase and seeing how it changes the sun’s shadows over the solar panels.”

The school started working in earnest on the digital twin project at the end of term 1, 2021 as an enrichment [extension] project, with plans to make it a formal elective subject down the track.

Students learnt how to build the static 3D model, using commercial, off-the-shelf industry software. Digital Twinning Australia’s technology then synchronises the solar energy system data with the model, creating the digital twin so students can play with it, test it, bounce ideas off each other and “see what they can break”. Year 4 students work on the maths around the solar panels, doing daily solar readings and make predictions on how weather and the climate data from the Bureau of Meteorology will impact the use of the building.

Older students code and use Digital Twinning Australia’s platform to crunch the data. A Year 7 student was so taken by the project, Parasiers has started mapping her progress towards her South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). That’s what most students study in Year 11 and Year 12.

“She’s a legend. She’s been able to get her first 10 SACE credits, but we had to wait for her to turn 12 because she was too young when she started,” Parasiers says.

Industry partnership delivering results

It highlights students are getting real-world experience with industry-level software through the partnership with Digital Twinning Australia rather than “just putting things into Google forms”.

Parasiers says: “We are pretty lucky to have the support of Digital Twinning Australia helping in so many ways regarding intellectual property and information. They’ve come on board to ask, what can we do to help. They are so invested in STEM, and this means our girls can create a skillset over 10 years rather than just five years. The learning opportunities are really valuable.”

“These same children will be presenting their local councils with landscape designs focussed on bringing the communities together in shared spaces. And these children will have designed future jobs and created new micro-economies.”

Experts from Digital Twinning Australia are on hand to answer students’ questions and guide them through decision-making, critical thinking and using the software. DTA’s digital engineer Ed Cronin has been visiting the school to run fortnightly sessions for Year 9 and 10 students.

“I’ve gone in there with my ideas, but have listened to student’ opinions and ideas and that’s shaped where the project is going. It’s changed my perception about what students are capable of — they’ve picked up this tech and run with it and are teaching the teachers and younger kids how it works,” Cronin says.

Digital Twinning Australia’s Founder and CEO, Genéne Kleppe, whose daughter formerly attended St Mary’s, says her company was keen for a CBD demonstration site of an energy system that included solar panels, a battery, an electric vehicle charging point and eventually a virtual power plant.

“Our hypothesis was if we gave the data to children in a modern format, could they learn and innovate. What has become blatantly clear is that within the next five to 10 years, school students with access to synchronising industry-level digital twin will be asset managing their schools, be capable of supplying builders with 3D designs for refurbishment, upgrades and new buildings.

“These same children will be presenting their local councils with landscape designs focussed on bringing the communities together in shared spaces. And these children will have designed future jobs and created new micro-economies.”

A move from ‘chalk and talk’

At St Mary’s, Parasiers’ role has been ‘logistics’ and project management, making sure the rooms are booked, bringing the students together, and helping students rehearse their presentations.

“I don’t have a STEM background, but have a strong appreciation for it. I couldn’t code to save my life, but I help to facilitate the projects while Digital Twinning Australia deliver the content and teaching,” she says.

And for her, the ‘aha teaching moment’ is around failure.

“This project is no walk in the park; none are necessarily IT gurus. Mostly, they’re just average kids who thought it would be cool to give it a shot. They’ve had to fail and see weeks of work disappear, and they have no idea why. They make mistakes by pushing the wrong buttons.

“Every time they fail, they actually grow so much more than if it all goes along smoothly. This project that’s shifting the dynamic of education.”

Looking to the skies for inspiration

It’s early days, but they’re talking about adding solar panels to the roof of another school building or converting another to a rooftop garden as a mitigation strategy for offsetting heat. They’re using the digital model to investigate how they can offset the school’s ecological footprint — go carbon neutral. Green Adelaide, a South Australian Government supported organisation, working towards a “cooler, greener, wilder and climate-resilient Adelaide”, is also supporting the school

For now, St Mary’s students number-crunch to assess what investment in green technology is needed and how long it would take before at least one of the school’s buildings could go off-grid. They’ll present their case to industry for funding or donations of solar panels and electricity batteries, Parasiers says.

“The students are putting forward the case that data to industry to see if we can secure free solar panels and batteries and support from green energy providers. Then that’s where it starts to get exciting — students get to design what comes next. The skies are the limit,” she says.

“It’s really easy to say ‘no’ to projects with us overworked teachers having no sleep, but if we can put more faith in these types of projects, they have real value and incredible opportunity to reshape how schools function.”

The project continued steadily into 2022, with the students developing a pitch and business case for securing a battery to be integrated into the school. As a result of the analysis and data analytics carried out from the schools energy usage using the digital twin, the students put this new knowledge to use through starting the process of securing a battery for the school.

Cronin says, the battery’s specifications and requirements were established based on the school’s existing solar battery power supply, the future energy demands and the overall benefits the school will receive.

“Securing this battery will push St Mary’s another step toward making it a self-sustainable precinct and will provide countless opportunities for further projects and learning.”

Thursby says work on the battery is a “key priority” for 2023.

--

--

Margaret Paton, Aussie-based education writer

PhD student at Deakin University, Australia, using netnography to explore out-of-field teaching. GradCert Ed Research MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism.