Young citizen scientists assist in Salt Lake City air quality research – Science Nation

Young citizen scientists assist in Salt Lake City air quality research – Science Nation


[Music] Miles O’Brien:
It’s 8 AM at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. Julian Kennicott’s day
is off to a chilly start. This sensor is part of
his science fair project. He’s measuring
particulate matter in the air linked to idling. Julian Kennicott:
This is a good place to do this study because of the pick-up
and drop off times – those are when people
are going to be idling on us. They’re going to be waiting. Miles O’Brien:
So-called “P-M” or particle pollution is a big issue
in Salt Lake City. What looks like haze is actually
tiny particles in the air that are so small
you can breathe them in. Shea Wickelson is Julian’s
chemistry teacher. Shea Wickelson:
The majority of it is from cars and trucks. For kids growing up
in Salt Lake, it’s a part of their lives.
We end up getting inversions and the cold air gets trapped
down here in the valley, and you end up getting
these pollution events. Miles O’Brien:
Chemical engineer Kerry Kelly with the University of Utah and a team
want to help residents, especially students, understand what this pollution
problem is all about. With support from
the National Science Foundation, they’re partnering
with citizen scientists to build up a network
of air quality sensors all over the area.
They call it “AirU.” Kerry Kelly:
We have sensors up at schools. We have sensors
in the homes of students. We have sensors out
at other community locations, and we try to get
a good distribution in terms of elevation, in terms of different types
of land use and different types
of socioeconomic levels. Kerry Kelly:
So, we’re looking at our sensor network here… Miles O’Brien:
The goal is to monitor for particulate matter pollution
and make the data available to the everyone in a real-time,
easy to understand format. Kerry Kelly: So, each one of
those dots corresponds to one of
the sensors in our network… Miles O’Brien:
Remember that sensor from Julian’s science project?
He got it from the AirU team. Tony Butterfield:
I would recommend putting your sensor together
before you wire it… Miles O’Brien:
They were visiting at the school that very same day to lead
a crash course on sensors. Tony Butterfield:
One of the big goals of the LEGO teaching module is to kind of demystify
that black box of a sensor, to literally open it up
and see how it works, put the pieces together. If their first design
doesn’t work, go through, analyze it
and redesign it, put it back together
until it works. By the time they’re done
with that module, they know exactly what’s going
on in the research sensor that we leave it in their school
or at their homes. Miles O’Brien:
Many of the instructors are undergraduates. They assemble and test
the sensors back at the lab too. Some, like freshman Katrina Le,
started as a high school intern. She helped develop
the LEGO module. Katrina Le:
We started off with another idea. We were trying to use Tic-Tac
boxes instead of the LEGOs, but then we thought the LEGOs
would be a wonderful idea just to engage the students. Tony Butterfield:
For me, as an older professor to go into a high school and try to figure out
what they understand and what they care about
is not very effective, but for me to work hand in hand
with high school interns – that is invaluable. Miles O’Brien:
Particle pollution is mostly a problem in the winter
for the Salt Lake City area, but it turns up during
other times of the year as well. These are sensor readings
recorded on the fourth of July, as fireworks were going off.
And this is a wildfire. Kerry Kelly:
And these sensors on the eastern most boundary
of our network detected this peak
in particulate matter about two and a half hours before the state
monitoring station reports it. So, these types of things
could be very important for sensitive individuals and to serve
as an early warning. Miles O’Brien:
For Kelly, this is about nurturing science literacy
at the grassroots level. Kerry Kelly:
Here in Utah, and in many places
throughout the country, air quality is a really
pressing problem and if we’re going to make good
decisions about air quality, we need to educate the next
generation of decision makers. Miles O’Brien:
For Shea Wickelson, it’s a tool to help train
her students to think like
scientists and engineers. Shea Wickelson:
What they really need are skills
to create things, being able to revise things
and being able to analyze data, and I think that that’s the real
gift of this engineering project is the opportunity
to make things, but also the opportunity to
problem solve using real data. Miles O’Brien:
Bringing citizen scientists together
to better understand air quality and engineer solutions
for a cleaner future. For Science Nation,
I’m Miles O’Brien.

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