A new study showing that office workers did better on cognitive tests when they had fresher air to breathe underscores growing evidence that physical environments matter for performance at work and school.
Since about 2008, all new school construction projects in Washington that receive state funding have had to meet “green” standards for energy efficiency, aimed at creating buildings that are healthier for students and the environment.
Classrooms that are noisy, poorly lit, too hot or cold or stuffy can all undermine learning.
Last year, Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington and her colleagues wrote a paper intended for policymakers that summarized the research on the effects of the physical environment on learning.
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They included their own research showing that even posters on the wall can affect how students feel about certain subjects.
For example, they found that undergraduate women were more likely to pursue computer science when they saw classrooms that didn’t look like havens for stereotypical male nerds (decked out with video games and Star Wars and Star Trek stuff). Classrooms with nature posters and plants worked better for female students and didn’t alienate male students, either.
They concluded from the evidence that “student learning and achievement is deeply affected by the environment in which this learning occurs.”
And now a new study of office workers underscores the influence of the environment on performance in a rigorously controlled experiment.
It showed that undetectable adjustments to ventilation quality dramatically improved performance on a computerized test of complex thinking and problem-solving.
The experiment involved 24 white-collar professionals (architects, designers, programmers, engineers, etc.) who spent two weeks working in two rooms, in a building where air quality could be precisely controlled to simulate either a conventional building, a “green building” or a green building with even better ventilation than the standard requires.
The workers didn’t know which condition they were working under each day. In the afternoon, they were asked to take a computerized test that measured their ability to reason through different scenarios.
The researchers who analyzed their performance on the tests also didn’t know which condition the employees were working under, making the experiment “double-blind” — a hallmark of a rigorous research design.
On average, the scores were 61% higher on the green building day and 101% higher on the days with enhanced green building conditions than on the conventional building day, according to the study by Joseph Allen of Harvard and his colleagues.
“It was a great study. I liked it because it was so controlled,” said Nancy Johns, coordinator of the High-Performance School Buildings Program for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
She said OSPI does not know if the new “green” schools are making a difference in student learning, though many in the field have made such arguments for years. But to her, it also just makes common sense.
“We loved to visit our grandmother’s basement once a year to see all the cool stuff, but we also couldn’t wait to get out of there because it was damp, and cold and had no fresh air,” she said.