The impact of poor air quality on people’s lungs often is felt long before it is seen, but a program by Clean Air Carolina is providing the tools to educators and community members to help them see the invisible.
The AirKeepers Citizen Science program provides materials and low-cost sensors that people can use to monitor air quality right where they live.
Susan Harden, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, offers the education to her freshman classes.
“Because of their Citizen Science technology that’s very accessible and inexpensive, our students were able to use air-quality monitors,” Harden explained. “So, they had the equipment that gave them immediate feedback about their research questions.”
Clean Air Carolina has collected more than 10,000 hours of data with its monitors that measure particulate matter, a contributor to the depletion of air quality. The data is uploaded to an online site and is available to scientists and the public to monitor the air.
In recent years, state lawmakers have ordered the shutdown of many air-quality units across the state. Clean Air Carolina hopes the data collected by citizens will help supplement the information.
Kate Ortiz is in Harden’s UNC class this semester, and says she was surprised how much particulate matter she found in a school parking lot full of idling cars waiting to pick up students.
“I just learned a lot of new information about air quality that I hadn’t had before, so it was an interesting class,” Ortiz said. “It definitely influenced my knowledge about how I will be partaking, and contributing my own air pollution.”
Harden says the hands-on nature of the program makes a lasting impression on her students.
“They’re learning how to be advocates at really, the earliest stages of their college careers,” she said. “And so those two things – learning how to do science and learning how to be advocates for the environment – are just two wonderful aspects of the program.”
Clean Air Carolina is working with agencies that protect the environment to test the effectiveness of monitors and programs such as this one.