Air Now

Bringing EPA Research—and Confidence—to the Classroom

By Dana Buchbinder

As an undercover introvert I never imagined myself returning to the chaos of middle school, but this spring I took a deep breath and plunged in. For ten Wednesdays I co-taught an afterschool air science apprenticeship for sixth and seventh graders in Durham, North Carolina. The curriculum, “Making Sense of Air Quality,” was developed and taught by two EPA researchers who have volunteered for the past three years with a not-for-profit educational organization.

Students demonstrate air pollution sensors

Making Sense of Air Quality: students demonstrate the air quality sensors they built.

I joined the ranks of these EPA “Citizen Teachers” to help close the opportunity gap in education. The public middle school where we taught serves students from low income families, with 84% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. 15 students participated in our apprenticeship to learn career skills and become air science experts at their school.

At first it was challenging to relax in front of a room of squirmy kids, but I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to students’ needs. Lessons don’t always go as planned (okay, almost never), but patient teaching in hectic moments inspires students to become more observant scientists. When I could step back and appreciate the weekly progress, I recognized the class’s accomplishments.

The students built air sensors from kits an EPA researcher created for outreach. None of the middle schoolers knew electrical engineering or computer programming when we began, but they learned the foundations of these skills in just a few weeks. I watched one student who had struggled with air pollution vocabulary build a working air sensor from a diagram. Meanwhile, his classmate formulated a hypothesis about how her sensor would react to dust in the air.

We asked students to think like environmental scientists: Where would they choose to place air sensors in a community? How could they share what they learned about air pollution?

They saw air quality sensors in action during our field trip to the Village Green Project, an EPA community air monitor at a Durham County Library. Exploring the equipment gave the apprentices more hands-on practice with science.

In addition to teaching kids about EPA air research, this spring’s apprenticeship focused on two 21st century skills: technology and communicating science. These are career tools for a host of much-needed occupations, but are also vital to advancing research for protecting human health and the environment.

We challenged students to share their new air quality knowledge creatively. They designed posters for a community Air Fair and crafted rhyming “public service announcements” to explain how EPA’s AirNow School Flag Program helps young people stay healthy.

The highlight of the apprenticeship for me was standing back as the students showcased what they learned in a scientific presentation for parents, teachers, and scientists. Nearly 300 people attended this culminating event for all the spring apprenticeships. With remarkable professionalism our class explained figures on poster displays, operated their air sensors, and quizzed the audience with an air quality game.

The guests were impressed by the students’ knowledge and caught their enthusiasm in learning about air quality. Asked if the sensor measured pollen, one student said, “oh no, that’s much too big, we are measuring very tiny particles.” Such responses exhibited scientific thinking, focus, and vastly improved understanding of air pollution.

As Citizen Teachers, we were proud to see even the shyest kids present with confidence. These students reminded me that introverts can share passionately when strongly motivated by the subject. By the end of the apprenticeship I had gained my own confidence as an educator from this young flock of scientists.

About the Author: Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She hopes you will attend the upcoming Air Sensors Workshop, where speakers in Research Triangle Park, NC will present on air quality monitoring with students.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Are Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Pollution May be “Hard” on the Body’s Blood Vessels

Every day EPA researchers are advancing our understanding of how air pollution threatens heart health. We will be sharing some of the important studies under way and research discoveries during February in recognition of American Heart Month.

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Ann Brown

Can air pollution affect your heart? The short answer is—yes.  It can trigger heart attacks, stroke and cause other cardiovascular health problems. The long answer is that while we know that air pollution impacts the heart, additional research is needed to learn more about how this happens and what pollutants or mixtures are responsible.

An unprecedented 10-year study funded by EPA and the National Institutes of Health, called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution (MESA Air), is providing new information about the impacts of fine particle pollution on the arteries — the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Fine particles are microscopic bits of matter that are emitted mostly from the burning of fossil fuel. They have been found to be bad for the heart, at high levels.

MESA Air is expanding our knowledge of a condition that can set you up for a heart attack—atherosclerosis. You may have heard of the term “hardening of the arteries.” Well, that refers to atherosclerosis when there is a buildup of fats, cholesterol, and calcium in and on the artery walls, most commonly known as plaque. The buildup of plaques can result in a blood clot, which can block the flow of blood and trigger a heart attack. While atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body; in the brain, it may lead to strokes.

The MESA Air study is finding evidence of associations between long-term fine particle pollution and the progression of atherosclerosis. Another important observation from the MESA Air study shows that long-term exposure to fine particle pollution limited the ability of arteries to widen when the body needs more blood flow to the heart, say, when running up a flight of stairs.

These are among the many discoveries coming out of the MESA Air study that are providing new insights into how air pollution can contribute to atherosclerosis and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Those with heart disease who may be exposed to high levels of air pollutants can take action to protect their heart. A good first step is to be aware of high air pollution days. Check the daily air pollution forecast in your area by using the Air Quality Index at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at epa.gov/healthyheart.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Quality Awareness Week: Air Sensors 2013

Demonstrating a new technology at Air Sensors 2013.

Currently, the best way to know what the air quality is on any given day is to check the Air Now website (www.airnow.gov), sign up for “EnviroFlash” e-mail alerts (www.enviroflash.info/), and to check  your local media outlets, both print and broadcast, for announcements about “Air Action Days”—particularly on sultry summer days when they are most prevalent.

But a wave of next-generation air quality sensors is just over the horizon. These innovative technologies promise to make gathering and sharing air data faster and less expensive to gather, more relevant to local conditions (perhaps even down to the individual user), and easier to share. They have the potential to revolutionize air quality monitoring.

As we continue “Air Quality Awareness Week,” regular blogger Dustin Renwick has put together a look at the air sensor technologies that were showcased at last month’s Air Sensor 2013 Conference held at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Click play on the slide show below, or use the arrows to navigate through. The slideshow is best viewed in Google Chrome or Firefox.  If the slideshow does not work for you, you can view it here.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.