Strategy Share: Turning Small Connections into Large Ideas: Studying School Air Quality and Climate Science

Today is World Environment Day, the United Nations day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. This year’s theme is air pollution. This post is written by Michael Cruse, an ESL and Special Education teacher at the Arlington Career Center in Arlington, Virginia. His school recently studied the air quality in their classrooms.

I want you to close your eyes and picture someplace where the fresh air fills your lungs as your breath and a sense of calmness overcome you. Not your classroom? That’s ok, mine either. Students at my school recently studied the relationship between plants and air quality, which led to some larger realizations about climate science.  

Photograph by Michael Cruse

This year’s UN Environment Programme’s World Environment Day, recognized in over 100 countries, highlights air pollution with the hashtag #beatairpollution. 

For too many students and teachers, our classrooms don’t provide the sense of peace that comes with standing in that magical place you were just imagining. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted comparative risk studies that consistently rank indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Couple that with the fact that 1 in 13 school-age children has asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism related to chronic illness, and you start to understand the need for better air quality in schools (Ibid).

The truth is that anyone who spends 7.5 hours a day in a school building knows fresh air is our friend. There are too many smells that every educator is all too familiar with in their building. We need to bring the fresh air you imagined breathing a moment ago into our classrooms. 

The best part of elusive fresh air is that it involves science. The EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, and other agencies have developed the AirNow system to provide easy access to national air quality information. This means that your students can be the investigators of all those musty, mystery smells, and the many possible solutions. The EPA has resources to get your school started on understanding Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), and the steps your classes can take to improve it. In addition to the EPA, other partners are helping make IAQ studies accessible to teachers and students.

In my school district, the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund sponsored mini-grants to teachers who wanted to explore air quality issues in their communities. Working with my environmental science co-teacher, we proposed purchasing two air quality meters and 40 plants known for their air cleansing properties: Peace Lily, Snake Plant, Parlor Palm, and Devil’s Ivy. We then asked for teachers to volunteer their classroom to be monitored over a period of six weeks. Teachers had to find a safe space for their plants, but assigned students were their caretakers. 

Photograph by Michael Cruse

Once each plant was matched with a teacher’s classroom, the students distributed the plants and did initial air quality readings. These readings measured: room temperature, formaldehyde levels, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, humidity, plant height and general condition. Students recorded these readings, watered and cared for the plants, and later entered the data into Excel for calculation and comparison. At the end of the six weeks, students interviewed the teachers about their perceptions of having a plant in their class, including any social-emotional impact they noticed on their classes and themselves. Next, students were asked to review the data in Excel and make observations about trends they noticed from both their qualitative and quantitative assessments. 

Photograph by Michael Cruse

Students found that as spring arrived, humidity levels in classes rose. The increased humidity correlated to a jump in the height of the plants and increased particulate matter readings. According to the EPA, the size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Particles less than 10 micrometers are the most dangerous, because they can get into the lungs and even into the bloodstream. Students were given the task of researching correlations between humidity and particle matter to understand that relationship. Using National Geographic’s encyclopedia entry on humidity and Constructing an Argument: Air Quality activity, students learned how to create a scientific argument by making a claim, explaining their data, and rating their degree of certainty. Through the process of defining their arguments, students connected what they noticed from their data to the larger, global context of climate change.

Students discovered that the relationship they observed between higher humidity levels and increased particulate matter in the classroom connected to larger scale observations by climate scientists. They also associated the increased presence of particulate matter with increased mortality from respiratory illnesses in cities with the worst air quality ratings. Based on their observed correlation between increased humidity, higher levels of particulate matter, and negative health effects, students became invested as citizen scientists. Using our campus to better understand climate science and global public health challenges opened new possibilities for their understanding of humans’ impact on the environment.

What began as an air quality study of our school led us to thinking beyond our building to consider how climate factors like humidity levels impact not only our school’s health but that of the planet. In the end, the opportunity to connect our classrooms to some very basic climate science was also a step closer to students exploring adaptations to deal with our planet’s changing climate. 

Michael Cruse is an ESL and Special Education teacher at the Arlington Career Center in Arlington, Virginia. He was a 2018 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Fellow, studying green schools and environmental education in Israel and Palestine. He is also a National Geographic Certified Educator.

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