June 7, 2024

Schools across Western Mass are feeling the effects of extreme heat in the classroom. UMass Amherst Associate Professor, Climate Artist, and Art for Public Good Founder Carolina Aragón teamed up with Cooler Communities and the Duggan Academy in Springfield to co-create “sWARM,” a participatory art project that aims to raise awareness and helps find solutions to this problem.  

This spring, over 500 Duggan Academy middle school students and their teachers worked together to make hundreds of Origami butterflies. Students followed an educational kit designed by Aragón that instructed students on how to fold and paint the butterflies with a thermochromic paint that changes color in response to temperature. When temperatures rise above 77 degrees, the paint turns from pink to clear, revealing the students' messages beneath about what to do when it’s too hot inside and what their hopes are for the future. The kit also featured daily lessons and reflective surveys about climate change.

Aragón’s team of UMass Landscape Architecture students with Art for Public Good assembled all the butterflies into a public art installation that acts as a visual thermometer of extreme heat and its health impacts in schools and other buildings. 

On Saturday, June 1st, project sWARM premiered at the Springfield Science Museum. During the event ceremony, Aragón, Cooler Communities Director Uli Nagel, and Duggan Academy Director of Partnerships Mary Kay Brown shared the story behind project sWARM and thanked the many students and teachers who played an integral role in its success.

“All the work really was students and the teachers,” said Aragón, “You opened the doors to us and Cooler Communities and worked with us to make this project happen. It’s heartfelt and we’re all here with good intentions. It’s important to remember there are people who want to do what’s right," said Aragón.

One 8th grader from Duggan shared that he liked being part of sWARM because it was something he could connect with as he feels the heat in our world just about every day. A 7th grader told visitors that being part of sWARM helped her understand how heat affects the planet and why it is so important to take care of the earth for one another.   

Dealing with the heat is a challenge for students at Duggan where many classrooms lack air conditioning. Mary Kay Brown recounted that when one middle school class tried to paint the butterflies for the first time, students were astonished to see the thermochromic paint immediately turn clear because their classroom was so hot. 

Today at Duggan, students are discovering innovating ways to reduce heat in their classrooms. Mary Seid, a 7th grade science teacher, shared on Saturday that she and her students are measuring their classroom windows so they can order window films that reflect 95% of incoming light. After installing the films, students will collect data on heat gain reduction. If the experiment proves successful, the class plans to bring this solution to other second floor, south-facing classrooms. 

At UMass Amherst, Carolina Aragón is now working with UMass Prof. Ezra Markowitz to study the impact that project sWARM may have on the knowledge and perception of extreme heat by its participating students. Aragón and Markowitz look forward to sharing their results with students and teachers of the Duggan Academy community in the coming months. 

Education is the first step to ensuring our environment and communities do not suffer. Art can be a transformational tool for students to learn about the effects of climate change and advocate for the health and wellbeing of their communities. With its educational kit, the leaders of sWARM believe their project has the potential to be replicated in other schools throughout Western Mass, especially those suffering from extreme heat. 

SWARM will be open at the Springfield Science Museum this summer through August 31st. Afterwards, sWARM will be installed at the Duggan Academy in the school's main hallway.

Watch this video to learn more about project sWARM.

Come see sWARM at the Springfield Science Museum on view until late August.