DISCOVER-AQ: Reaching for the Sky with Student Citizen Scientists

By Dana Buchbinder

NASA aircraft takes off.

DISCOVER-AQ aircraft takes to the sky. Image courtesy of NASA.

As school reopens with bouquets of newly-sharpened yellow pencils (as they say in the movies), even recent graduates like me get swept up in the excitement: a new season of academic discovery! This fall, an EPA partnership with NASA is helping the next generation of students experience the thrill of air quality research first-hand.

During this mission, named DISCOVER-AQ (the “AQ” stands for “air quality”), our team will employ the help of young “citizen scientists” in Houston to test new compact sensor technologies for measuring ozone and nitrogen dioxide air pollutants at the earth’s surface.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

Citizen science is a style of research that encourages inexperienced and even very young participants to help with professionally organized research projects. Volunteers collect simple field data that would be difficult for the lead researches to gather without many hands. If projects inspire awe, discovery, and insight along the way, well, that was part of the plan.

The multi-year DISCOVER-AQ project uses airplanes and ground-based instruments to help scientists better understand how to measure and forecast air quality globally from space. My colleagues recently installed compact ground-based devices for the third of four DISCOVER-AQ field missions. The devices—small enough to be held in one hand—were placed at eight Houston area public schools. EPA-trained teachers will lead their students in operating the new air monitors. Elementary, middle, and high school students will contribute the data they collect to the EPA research team, helping professional scientists develop needed updates to methods of standardizing air quality measurements across the country.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

EPA DISCOVER-AQ researcher Dr. Russell Long reports, “The school’s principals and teachers are very excited about what’s going on; they say it’s a great opportunity for their students.” These educators have already requested that EPA scientists working with the schools to ensure high quality data will double as guest speakers for the classes, helping kids make the connection between book science and research in action. The scientists are thrilled to participate. We are fine-tuning a set of air, climate, and energy activities to support the project’s science concepts in classrooms.

NASA partners also see the project as a unique opportunity for sharing their work with young people. In the NASA component of the project, pilots will fly aircraft fitted with air monitoring equipment at scheduled times over the schools. The flight data will be matched with ground-based data to help researchers measure air pollutants that permeate the air column. Students will be able to talk with the pilots during these coordinated fly-overs while they watch the planes approach on a tracking app and then zoom overhead!

DISCOVER-AQ is science far beyond the laboratory. The experience will be unmatched for hundreds of students who may not have considered science as a captivating career before. These student scientists can feel proud they’re contributing to fundamental research to help NASA and EPA protect human health and the environment. I look forward to hearing what the students find out!

About the author:  Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor supporting EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national research program. She enjoys working on Rachel Carson-worthy projects that help scientists, pre-scientists, and non-scientists “rediscover…the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

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