Science for the People

High school students investigate community air quality

By Tony Marks-Block

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

“Wow—Tony, look at those numbers! They’re like double the amount from before,” a student in our after-school science research program exclaimed after a large train passed by. The students were using a machine to count particulate matter (PM), microscopic particles primarily created through the combustion of various fossil fuels, along our air quality transect on Fruitvale Ave. in Oakland, Calif. What was once commonplace—a train speeding through the neighborhood—became a catalyst for students to understand the connections between energy and air quality. 

Over a year, a small group of high school students risked their afternoons and summer to participate in a science program that was, as Maraya put it, “much different from science class.” This was one of several after-school programs in Oakland and Richmond that I was leading as an instructor with the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS), a National Science Foundation project coordinated by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. Students in our projects carry out local, community-based research. Given the proximity of many schools to freeways, train tracks, and industry, we decided to focus on energy production and its relation to air quality as a way to help develop science literacy and environmental justice leaders.

With the help of the high school staff, I recruited a group of 9th graders. Many of them were struggling academically and wanted the extra science credit offered for my after-school project. Although we explained that they’d be researching air quality, students later told me that they did not know what they were getting into and joined primarily for the extra credit.

When we started, environmental (in)justice was not a part of their vocabulary, but it was a part of their experience. My challenge was to help students connect their visceral understanding of racial injustice to a scientific process that could be used to develop deeper knowledge about community health and air pollution. If they could collect and analyze data on air pollutants, and then communicate their findings and the implications to their community and others, this would be one step toward taking ownership of their environment and their community’s education.

Test Tube Rockets

Before I introduced my students to air quality and PM data collection, I led them through some energy-related activities structured to help them develop research skills and an understanding of the root problems underlying air quality. Unlike many science courses, where memorizing facts is the norm, our curriculum emphasizes the development of new knowledge through the manipulation and testing of various systems.

First, I introduced students to test tube rockets. I challenged them to find the combination of baking soda and vinegar that would propel a test tube sealed with a rubber plug the highest. This was a messy and competitive affair. In their excitement, students often forgot the proportions of each chemical used for a specific trial. How could I pass up this opportunity to emphasize the importance of taking good scientific notes? Students soon realized that they could refine their system better when they documented their measurements.

Once we had a winning combination of baking soda and vinegar, I asked: “Where does the energy come from that makes the rockets go?” I hoped someone could explain that the chemical reaction between the baking soda and vinegar produces carbon dioxide gas that builds up pressure within the tube and launches it from the rubber plug. But there was dead silence.

So I asked them to think about their own bodies: “What sources of energy do humans use to move—whether with our legs or in our automobiles? Do we use baking soda and vinegar for energy? Why or why not?” Although they laughed at these silly questions, they had trouble answering them because in their classes, the world is rarely taught from a systems or comparative perspective.

I have found it’s often helpful to ask students to compare human function with other systems, so I persisted: “What byproducts do people create when they consume energy?” Finally, Andre remembered from biology class that we breathe out carbon dioxide. This led the group to hypothesize that carbon dioxide may also be the gas produced when baking soda and vinegar are combined, as well as when fossil fuels combine with heat.

Of course, one experiment did not leave students with a full understanding of energy and the myriad ways that humans generate energy to run their societies. I introduced them to electrical systems because of how integral, yet abstracted and hidden, they are in our daily lives. We experimented with moving electricity in different ways to produce different effects, from turning on a light bulb to running a motor. I also introduced them to solar and wind as energy sources, and we compared them with a basic battery. Constructing circuits helped my students develop conceptual knowledge of an important system. The next question was: “All our buildings and appliances depend on electricity. Where does it come from?”

Energy Use and Air Quality

Most electricity, of course, is generated through the burning of fossil fuels. To make the connection to air quality, I introduced students to common fuels that generate electricity and, appropriately, we burned them. Before the thrill of actually setting gasoline, diesel, ethanol, and wood on fire, I asked students to predict which fuels would generate the least PM. I also introduced them to our Fluke 983, a machine that pumps ambient air and then counts the number of particles of 0.3, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, and 10 micrometers with laser technology. The smallest particles are the most dangerous because they can travel farther into your body and can accumulate in your lungs and bloodstream. This machine is powerful for youth because it produces data within seconds. Students can easily operate the Fluke and, while it pumps a liter of air, they can watch it count particles in real time. When the students compared the quantitative data from the Fluke and the qualitative data from their visual observations of the fuels we had just burned, they were excited to see that their observations had a strong correlation to the Fluke data.

Most students were astonished by how many microscopic particles are in the air, and instantly had many questions and comments: “Where do these particles come from?” “Can I bring this to my house?” “Will there be more particles in the bathroom?” “How much does this thing cost?”1

Illustration: Michael Duffy

My students spontaneously began to generate their own research questions. I encouraged them to develop a method for answering their questions: “How would you figure out which room has more particles?” “If you only tested the air once, would that be enough proof that a particular room always had higher levels of particulate matter?” My prompting resulted in a high energy discussion filled with curiosity. Pedro asked, “What is particulate matter made of?” Although we did not have time that day to delve into an answer, the discussion certainly helped my teaching. I began to prepare future lessons to help them learn what they wanted to know.

In order for students to understand the health impacts of PM, I brought in a guest speaker to discuss how PM affects the body’s respiratory and circulatory systems, and how it can cause and exacerbate asthma, lung disease, and heart disease. We also did background research on health statistics for Alameda County. The table of numbers with columns on race, gender, hospitalizations, and deaths intimidated the students. They had done little data analysis in school, so asking specific questions such as “Which race has the highest rate of asthma in Alameda County?” frustrated them. They weren’t eager to do activities that were more “like school” and less “hands on.”

It wasn’t just the math that made my students reluctant to get into this. Across the board, African Americans and Latinos have higher levels of disease in the county. For many of my students this felt like another obstacle; for some it generated cynicism. When I asked why they thought asthma affected African Americans and Latinos at a higher rate than whites in Alameda County, Raúl said it was because their neighborhoods are closer to environmental pollutants, but Cecilia remarked that “all Mexicans do is smoke weed,” reflecting how uncomfortable many of the students were with the discussion. Like many youth of color, they were wrestling with the perceptions and stereotypes of their communities in U.S. society. All in all, I did not receive the outpouring of student-initiated questions as I had when I introduced the Fluke. Instead of students leading the discussion with their questions, I struggled to move the discussion away from self-deprecation.

I wish I had more examples of communities with data showing that the reduction of specific environmental pollutants lowered disease. Analyzing that data would be a more fulfilling experience for us all! In the end, these lessons did help students cement connections among energy, air quality, and health, despite the difficulties students had fully engaging in the material. When asked how energy use impacts their community, Huong summed it up:

The way you make energy . . . you need fossil fuels to convert to electricity, and all of that burning causes a lot of smoke and stuff in the air . . . and it just gives people breathing problems . . . and asthma.

Taking Research Out to the Neighborhood

Drawing on this new background knowledge of energy, air pollution, and scientific research, we began to design an experiment with the Fluke particle counter to test student hypotheses. I brought out some local maps and asked: “If we want to find out where in the neighborhood there is more particulate matter, where should we collect samples?” Using their knowledge that automobiles and diesel trucks emit a lot of particulates, students suggested that we take samples in the parking garage. We tried this a couple of times. Then I steered students back to my original question and asked if just testing in the parking garage would give us an understanding of PM in the community as a whole. Eventually, we agreed to sample for PM at numerous locations cutting across their community. Because they had identified cars and trucks as a source of PM, I asked them if there were any other areas with high vehicular traffic, and they immediately pointed to the nearby I-880 freeway. “What do you think?” I asked them. “Will PM increase or decrease as we get farther from the freeway?” They hypothesized that PM would be higher near the freeway and would decrease with distance.

We began collecting samples at each intersection between the freeway and International Blvd. along Fruitvale Ave. every Wednesday afternoon after school between March and May. This was sometimes tedious, but students developed an understanding of why it was important to collect samples over and over again: Air quality changes each day, and they wanted to understand PM patterns in the area over time. One week when they found higher levels of PM at the freeway, I asked them how they could prove it was always that way: “What variables might impact the PM count each week?” Students responded with a list that they now understood: “Temperature, humidity, wind speed, and traffic levels.”

One day I asked students what would be the ideal research method that would get us the most comprehensive results. Veronica responded that an on-site monitor, always collecting data, would give us a better understanding. Other students added that if the machine could also detect the chemical composition of the particles, we could know whether any of the chemicals in the air were at higher levels, and potentially determine the source of the particles.

These wonderful responses raised such great political issues, I had to follow up with further questions: “Why isn’t this monitoring occurring if there are such high levels of disease and illness in this community? Who should be leading those monitoring efforts?” My students hadn’t really thought about that, and just assumed “other scientists” should be leading the effort.

“Why do you think other scientists aren’t doing this kind of research?” I asked.

“Scientists don’t really care about Mexicans and Fruitvale,” Francisco said.

“That might be true. Do you think that scientists and the government agencies that regulate air pollution even have the resources to carry out this research?”

“Ha! Of course not,” several students responded. From their experience with their education and the quality of life in their neighborhood, all the dots were connected. If the government put so few resources into other social services, why would there be resources for health or the environment? Through discussions like these, I tried to integrate new vocabulary, including environmental racism and injustice, to define what my students had already explained.

Students Generate More Research Questions

Through our data collection along the transect, students became interested in using the Fluke to perform other tests. For example, they saw how often trains passed by and they wanted to see the effect on PM. So they began to note when the trains arrived, and positioned themselves near the tracks to take samples. They concluded: “PM sizes increased significantly, most likely because of the trains’ diesel fuel exhaust combined with the accumulation of dust particles swept up from the ground as the train passes with great speed” (see illustration on p. 23).

They also began to collect data inside one of their school classrooms and bathrooms to test indoor air quality, since that is where they (unfortunately) spend most of their day. PM counts for the smallest particles (PM size 0.3 micrometers) turned out to be much higher in the school restrooms and classrooms than outdoors. At first, this confused students, since they had hypothesized that levels would be lower indoors. One student proposed that it was an anomaly—maybe someone had just sprayed cleaner in the bathroom? But the higher levels of PM persisted each week, and when we finally averaged our data at all sample locations, the indoor locations still were significantly higher for PM 0.3 compared with outdoor locations.

Because we had not done background research on indoor air quality, I brought in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) fact sheet to help us devise hypotheses for the higher levels. We used the EPA information to narrow down the probable sources of high indoor PM counts to furniture or paint off-gassing, cleaning fluids (as had been previously predicted), and/or poor ventilation.

To continue to push students to use scientific methods, I asked them to devise a method to test one of the potential causes of poor indoor air quality. Delia thought we should just open the classroom door to see if air quality improved when outside air came into the class. Sure enough, PM counts went down when the door was opened to the outdoor courtyard. As the students explained later on their research poster: “Opening the door let outside air flow into the room, and we found a sevenfold decrease in levels of all PM particle sizes. However, soon after the PM levels decreased upon opening the door, we began to smell barbecue from a nearby restaurant, and PM counts in the room immediately increased again.”

But why were these small particulates accumulating in the first place? I proposed that the building’s ventilation system, which filtered air into the building, was malfunctioning or not designed to filter out such small particles. This was an air quality issue we could do something about!

Turning Data into Analysis

The first step was to consolidate and analyze our data. Coincidentally, at just this time, the students had the opportunity to create a scientific poster of their work for the upcoming American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. Developing and producing a scientific document would help them understand their data at a deeper level, and would give them the practice and legitimacy to use their research as young environmental activist leaders.

Illustration: Michael Duffy

This task was not easy. I led them through the most basic data analysis step by step, as they had never used spreadsheet software to help them organize quantitative data. After they had input all of their data, I asked: “How can we see if a particular point has more particles than others over time, and not just on one day?” I hoped the students would recognize that they could use their existing knowledge of averages and apply it to their data, but I got a lot of blank stares. For many of the students, the data was a morass of seemingly impenetrable information. I showed them how to use functions to average PM at each location, and then to create graphs to compare the averages of each sample location. Then we worked on everyone being able to explain the graphs.

Although this was a frustrating process for all of us, I knew that this experience would help them with their mathematical skills in the future. Due to time constraints, I couldn’t teach them the statistics that could make their arguments stronger, but we did articulate their basic findings.

Their next task was to transform their data and graphs into both a slide show and a poster presentation of their research. I asked them to arrange their graphs and write a discussion section that would review their findings. When graphs lacked titles and labels, or their scaling made it difficult to read, I asked students if they thought others would be able to read the graph, or even know what it represented: “What unit does the y-axis represent? I only see that there is 70,000 of something at Fruitvale and International—is it 70,000 gum wrappers, cars, flies?” Keeping things humorous prevented total meltdowns and helped us get through a process that was entirely new to them. Once students had their graphs formatted and their paragraphs written explaining their purpose, methodology, and conclusions, we worked on their oral communication skills. An important aspect here was making sure that everyone could discuss all aspects of their project, even though each student had focused on a particular element of the slide show and poster.

At the San Francisco conference, many different scientists approached their poster simultaneously, so each student had to engage with “real” scientists and explain their poster. The conference pushed students to think about questions they had not answered in their poster, and to develop new approaches to articulating their understanding to an audience they had initially been intimidated by. The conference also showed other scientists the work that needs to be done in under-resourced communities, as well as the capabilities of students who are severely underrepresented in the field. This intersection of cultures challenged both our students and the professional scientists, who were blown away by our students’ rigorous work.

Turning Analysis into Activism

After the conference we returned to the question of how to address the higher levels of PM indoors. This initiated a discussion about who had the information and/or the power to do something about the air quality problems that they had identified at the school. The students identified the principal as the place to start. The principal sent them to the building manager, who immediately referred them to the building engineer.

Unfortunately, the engineer was dismissive of student concerns. He told them that the ventilation system functioned fine, and that it must be the level of student foot traffic that contributed to such high particle counts in their school. When we asked to see the filtration and ventilation system to learn how it functioned, the engineer successfully gave us the runaround and stood us up numerous times.

In the meantime, students began to notice that the vents in their rooms had accumulated layers of dust that were obviously impeding air from leaving the room. I suggested that maybe their principal could apply the necessary pressure to do something about the classroom vents. One day several months into our efforts, students noticed that management had finally sent in staff to clean off the layers of dust that had accumulated on the vents. As soon as the vents had been cleaned, students said, “Let’s test our rooms now!” Sure enough, counts were consistently lower over the subsequent weeks.

Although cleaning the vents may not have addressed the root cause of PM creation, it was a problem the students were successful in addressing. This success gave them more confidence, and I busily began to connect them to other organizations, the media, and higher-ups in the Oakland Unified School District. Interestingly enough, an indoor air quality committee had recently been formed within the district, and the nurse leading the effort was ecstatic to hear about my students’ work. They were invited to speak to and eventually join the committee. Their experience gave them a level of authority and expertise that others in the district did not have, and they were asked to begin testing the air in other schools. I hope to see my students train other students to carry out the research within each of their schools. As Eric said:

This can be the beginning, I don’t think we are going to finish this all the way to the end, so that everybody in the community knows about particulate matter, but we can help with that, and start it, and in the future, others can continue the work.

These words are evidence of the community perspective my students have gained. They recognize that their work was done as a team, not as individuals, and the more people there are involved, the more can be accomplished.

Although in the beginning my students were shy and lacked confidence, through their experiences with many different audiences they have become excellent advocates for reducing air pollution and creating alternatives to dirty fuels. They have found that scientists, teachers, and peers respect their work, and this has helped them appreciate their own efforts. Evelina said:

I felt good showing all the scientists my work; we told them about all the particles at all of the sample locations. I felt professional. With science I can tell my community what’s bad for you, and if you use [fossil fuels] too much that your kids could get diseases or asthma. I can tell my family about what’s in the air. My house is close to the freeway, too. Doing more presentations and research will benefit the community.

According to Ricardo:

We decided on the rules and the schedule. There was a little direction from Tony, but we did the rest.

I think this sense of themselves as scientists who “own” their research and who can see their positive role in developing solutions to health problems had a profound effect on their development and esteem.

The students have many ideas for future research. They want to collect data on specific pollutants, like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, as well as do similar transects and testing in other parts of the East Bay. They also want to share their findings with many more audiences. Giving youth access to scientific tools and a framework to communicate their findings helps foster future leaders with community-oriented perspectives, which is essential to creating healthy communities.

Creating space for our students to collaborate on community actions is the next step to making their research applicable and relevant to their lives. Eric said he “would invest more money into solar panels and renewable energy on houses and would use science to learn how to build cheaper solar panels.” Do we have the infrastructure or resources to support those goals? If that is what justice looks like to him, then how do we support him in developing this vision?

All students who are aware of the issues need outlets and organizations they can work with to build alternatives for their community. To really integrate environmental justice from classrooms to community, we need to be a part of community movements working on these issues so we can get our students involved. Only when many actors pushed to get the vents cleaned at the high school did they get clean. If it takes that much to get some vents cleaned, we’ll need forces beyond a few staff members in our school districts demanding healthy air. As teachers, activists, and organizers, it is our role to work with students to develop campaigns that challenge the routing of trucks and freeways in our communities, as well as encourage alternative modes of transportation and production so that clean sources of energy are utilized. If we want our students to become leaders and environmental justice activists, then we need to exercise some leadership as well!

Thank you to EBAYS staff, leadership, and visionaries Kevin Cuff and Jessica Díaz. Thank you to the faculty and staff at ARISE High School, and to all the students I have had the privilege of working with and learning from.


1. Many teachers ask me the last question, and unfortunately I have to tell them it costs about $5,000. For a lesson using inexpensive materials, see: 

Tony Marks-Block (Contact Me) is program coordinator for the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists. Mills College Educational Talent Search was a collaborating partner on this project. Student names have been changed.