air sensors

Air Sensors in Puerto Rico: Empowering a Community with Scientific Knowledge

By Christina Burchette

Drop a stone in a placid lake and you’ll notice that the impact of stone hitting water creates a ripple effect that spreads outward in gentle, incremental waves. It is a quiet but powerful image of something we all know to be true: a small act can generate great significance over time.

EPA researchers Ron Williams and Maribel Colón hope to start a ripple effect in Tallaboa-Encarnación, a small community that sits along the Southern Coast of Puerto Rico. Williams, Colón, and EPA’s Caribbean Environmental Protection Division will work with local community action group DISUR (Desarrollo Integral del Sur) to install and maintain low-cost air monitoring devices in Tallaboa-Encarnación. These devices  will help community members analyze local pollutant levels and better understand the local environmental conditions.

aerial view of the community

The Tallaboa/Encarnación community in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico was selected for this project and has an interest in collecting environmental data to support environmental awareness.

Researchers are currently building the community’s air monitors in EPA’s Research Triangle Park laboratory. The rectangular devices are about ten inches wide and will collect data on two common air pollutants: total volatile organic compounds (tVOC), which come from sources like vehicle exhaust, and fine particle pollution (PM2.5), which is emitted from motor vehicles, smokestacks, forest fires, and other sources that involve burning.

Once the devices are installed in the area, which is near a highway and several industrial facilities, community members and members of DISUR will participate in a day-long training using EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists to learn how to use the devices to collect, validate, and summarize environmental data.

Now more than ever, lower-cost air sensors are making air pollution monitoring citizen-accessible. People all over the world are collecting and analyzing local data to better understand air pollution in their communities and to make choices to protect their health. Our researchers’ involvement in the Tallaboa-Encarnación community project is especially important because the community would not have otherwise had access to these types of air monitoring tools and resources.

The small act of installing air monitoring sensors in such a remote community is about more than new air quality data. A community being able to take the fate of their health and environment into their own hands through scientific discovery is an amazing achievement—one that could create significant ripples in the pond of citizen science.

Learn more about this project by viewing our citizen science air monitoring in Puerto Rico fact sheet.

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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Collaborating with Local Communities to Measure Air Pollution

By Michaela Burns

I am no stranger to air pollution. Since I grew up in New York City, my walk to school every morning put me in constant contact with car exhaust and smoke rising from the vendor stations that lined the sidewalks. None of these experiences ever struck me as odd. They were just a part of the city’s charm! We had the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and we had air pollution. On particularly smoggy days, when I could barely see the city from my window, I always comforted myself with the fact that it was a problem far out of my league. After all, I was just an ordinary kid, not a scientist — what could I do to help? Nothing of course.

Once I started working at EPA, I found out that I had been completely wrong. Managing air pollution is a big job, but it can be made easier when the whole community gets involved. We call it “citizen science” — where people without a background in research can use scientific tools to address problems in their environment. To support this fast-growing field, EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program is funding six grants to evaluate how effective low-cost, portable air sensors are when used in communities.

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EPA researcher Eben Thoma adjusts an SPod monitor.

EPA grant winners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will use community-based air sensors to measure air quality and volcanic smog (“vog”) exposure on the Island of Hawai‘i (“the Big Island”). Up the coast at the University of Washington, researchers plan to deploy air sensors in student-directed studies examining heavy wood smoke impacts in their rural community. The team will work in partnership with Heritage University, whose students represent the local population of predominantly Yakama Nation and Latino immigrant families, to identify effective ways to communicate pollutant results to a broader audience. And this is just a sample of the diverse group of projects being done to help make air sensors more available to the public across the U.S. Other efforts include:

Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers will investigate the accuracy and reliability of existing air sensors, as well as their efficacy when put to use in Pittsburgh communities.

Kansas State University. Researchers will investigate if communities in South Chicago become more engaged in learning about their environment if they are provided with low-cost air sensors and the information generated by them.

Research Triangle Institute This research team will investigate how low-cost sensors can be used to help the Globeville, Elyria, Swansea (GES) community north of Denver, Colorado measure and understand data indicating the air quality in their neighborhood. The team will also evaluate the effectiveness of how information is presented to enable residents to understand their exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants and potentially empower them to take action to protect their health.

South Coast Air Quality Management District. This research team will provide local California communities with the knowledge necessary to select, use, and maintain low-cost, commercially available air monitoring sensors and to correctly interpret sensor data. The group will communicate the lessons learned to the public through a series of outreach activities.

By supporting the development and deployment of air monitoring technology, EPA is empowering ordinary citizens to take action against air pollution. Looking out for your community can be as easy as using our air sensor toolbox for citizen scientists to find out how to monitor the air quality in your neighborhood. With tools in reach, there’s no reason not to become a citizen scientist today!

About the author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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Kid Scientists Shine at White House Event

By Amanda Kaufman

Kaufman SoSTEm

Amanda Kaufman at the SoSTEM event.

President Obama’s last State of the Union address on January 12th called for giving everyone a fair shot at opportunity, including offering every student the “hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.” The United States government, including EPA, is supporting this call by encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers. There IS hope—and I experienced firsthand that hope with a group of young students at the White House just last week.

On January 13th, my colleague Joel Creswell and I demonstrated some of EPA’s emerging air sensor technologies research at a post-State of the Union event at the White House called the State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Address (SoSTEM). SoSTEM brought in students from all over—the Bronx, Baltimore, DC, and more—to showcase innovative science and technology to excite the imaginations of the students and encourage them to follow their dreams and passions no matter how insurmountable they may seem. Over 150 students from 5th through 12th grade attended the event.

I was lucky enough to spend several hours with these kids while I exhibited a variety of portable, lower-cost citizen science air monitors. They also got to build their own air pollution sensors using LED lights, microprocessors, electrical circuitry, and particulate matter (PM) sensors using kits designed by EPA research engineer Gayle Hagler. These energetic students had lots of questions about the sensors and air pollution in general, and I was amazed by how much they already knew about both topics or just figured out as we played with the various devices.

This event also featured presentations by NASA, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Institutes of Health, and some words of wisdom and encouragement from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, as well as several others.

The day ended with a live question-and-answer video chat session with scientists working at the South Pole. The students lined up eagerly to ask questions about what it’s like to live at the South Pole and what kinds of challenges they face in such a harsh environment.

Throughout the day, I was constantly impressed by the vision and enthusiasm exhibited by each of the young people, which inspired me to think of what future discoveries they would bring. All this “controlled chaos of enthusiasm” was accompanied by inquiring student reporters making their rounds with thoughtful questions. It was great to see these kids link what they were seeing to school subjects, making the connection between the microprocessors used in the air sensors and those being used in their computer science or robotics classes.

With support from President Obama and others, these kids are a shining example of our future. The common message given to students throughout the day was to stick with their dreams, to never give up, and to never stop dreaming. Quoting John Holdren, “The spirit of discovery is in our DNA…You [the students] are at the core of President Obama’s vision for the future.”

Check out a few more resources and a video from this event, below:

EPA Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists

Report to the President: Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) For America’s Future

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national 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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Release of Community Air Monitoring Training Videos

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Community leaders and EPA presenters

By Amanda Kaufman

I have seen a fast expansion of next generation air pollution sensor technologies while working in the field of citizen science for the past three years. Small, hand-held air quality sensors are now commercially available and provide citizens the ability to plan, conduct, and understand local environmental air quality as never before. Many of these cost less than $1,000, making them more accessible for community groups and even individuals to purchase.

While the new sensor technologies generally do not provide regulatory-grade data, such devices are rapidly advancing to improve data quality and can be used to enhance monitoring efforts. They can be used in a wide range of situations including to investigate air quality concerns in local communities and to teach people about the importance of clean air to public health and the environment.

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EPA’s Kristen Benedict talks about sensor messaging

With the rapid growth of sensor technologies, there is a great demand for information on how to select the appropriate monitoring technology and use it to gather viable information. That is why I am pleased to announce the availability of six air monitoring training videos, developed to help citizen scientists conduct air quality monitoring projects. The videos feature presentations by EPA experts and a citizen science professional given at EPA’s Community Air Monitoring Training workshop on July 9, 2015.

EPA hosted the training workshop as a pilot venture to share tools used to conduct citizen science projects involving Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology and to educate interested groups and individuals about best practices for successful air monitoring projects.

The videos are part of the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists and are intended to serve as resources for anyone interested in learning more about monitoring air quality. They provide short overviews (between 15-18 minutes in length) on topics that can help citizens plan and implement a successful air monitoring project. The topics and presenters are:

 

I was delighted to see the enthusiasm of the workshop attendees for the training and their desire to apply it to their local situation. It was contagious. Many who attended indicated they would go home and share key aspects of the training with their community groups to develop their own citizen science research plans.

With the availability of the training videos, more people will have access to the information provided on emerging technologies and community air monitoring. I see a bright future for citizen scientists as they become more aware of their local environment.

 

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.

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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Training Citizen Scientists to Monitor Air Quality

By Amanda Kaufman

Next-generation air monitor developed by EPA researchers

Next-generation air monitor developed by EPA researchers

As a science fellow at EPA, I am working with Agency researchers to help bring local air measurement capabilities to communities. This includes training citizen scientists with next generation air monitors developed by EPA researchers. One such device is the Citizen Science Air Monitor, which contains many sophisticated instruments to measure air quality under its sleek and simple design.

Today, Administrator Gina McCarthy is joining New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, and other community members at Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood Family Success Center to launch an EPA-Ironbound partnership for community air monitoring that is a first of its kind citizen science project. Read the press release.

The monitor does a lot for being so small and portable. It measures two air pollutants—nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter—as well as relative humidity and temperature. Residents of the Ironbound community are using the monitors to measure pollutants in different locations, during different times of the day and under a variety of weather conditions. The community is impacted by many sources of air pollutants.

In January, I traveled to Newark with researchers who developed the monitor to help train members of the Ironbound Community Corporation to use and maintain the monitors and collect data. The training was very hands-on and the participants were enthusiastic. They even turned the exercise for assembling the monitors into a friendly competition.

EPA researchers shared two training manuals that they developed as part of the outreach project. The quality assurance guidelines and operating procedures manuals are available to the public and are part of an online Citizen Science Toolbox developed to assist citizen scientists who are interested in using new air sensor technologies.

While the quality assurance guidelines and operating procedure are specific to the monitor developed for the Ironbound community, many of the concepts detailed in the documents are transferable to similar air quality monitoring efforts using next generation air monitors. The manuals are:

The ultimate goal of the research project is to empower people with information to address their local air quality concerns. I am glad to be a part of this important activity empowering a community to monitor their local quality

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national 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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Making Connections for Citizen Science

By Rachel McIntosh-Kastrinsky

Sharing citizen science

Sharing citizen science

Standing on the dais in front of accomplished scientists and professionals, I faced a series of tough questions about my program, but I was accustomed to fielding probing questions from my 12- and 13-year-olds on a regular basis.

Two weeks ago, I presented my project—teaching sixth and seventh graders how to use low-cost environmental sensors—at the Citizen Science Association’s inaugural conference in San Jose, Calif. Citizen science is an emerging field that actively engages community members and formal scientists in data gathering and research. Several EPA colleagues also attended the conference, called CitSci2015.

Last fall, I worked with Citizen Schools (also see Chasing the “Wow” with Citizen Schools and EPA Science) on an after-school class for middle schoolers in northern Durham, N.C., teaching them how we can use low-cost sensors to quantify the environment around us.

Citizen School students from Neal Middle School (Durham, NC) measure dissolved oxygen levels in water.

Citizen School students from Neal Middle School (Durham, NC) measure dissolved oxygen levels in water.

Though I was nervous about presenting an education-based project instead of a scientific-based study, I soon realized I had found the right conference. My fellow presenters also shared their educational and student-based citizen science projects. I was able to learn about new ways to engage citizen scientists and foster continued project participation. At the same time, I got to share my experiences and lessons learned about citizen science (and dealing with middle schoolers).

Surprisingly, this was only a single, 75-minute session.

Throughout CitSci2015, attendees shared new and inventive ways to actively involve individuals in quality scientific research. Data quality is always in question with citizen science, and CitSci2015 presented several sessions on how to address this, including talks by fellow EPAers about their Air Sensor Toolbox and the Agency’s vision for citizen science.

Several other talks emphasized the importance of ensuring communities are involved not only in the data collection but in all the steps of the project—from the research question to sharing the results. Chris Filardi, the keynote speaker, underlined this point when kicking off the conference by saying the researcher “should be riding shotgun.”

CitSci2015 created connections and new partnerships between non-profits, academics, state, local and federal governments and private industry. These new connections will help move citizen science and science in general forward by utilizing all available resources, especially communities.

CitSci2015 emphasized that the roots of citizen science have been established through engagements in environmental science, highlighting a continued role for EPA in this growing movement.

About the author: Rachel McIntosh-Kastrinsky is an Association of School and Programs of Public Health Environmental Health Fellow, hosted by EPA.

Note: For more insights from CitSci2015, check out the conversations on Twitter: #WhyICitSci, and #CitSci2015. The conference agenda and my presentation can be found on the Citizen Science Association website.

 

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 Sensors Citizen Science Toolbox

airsensorid

By Amanda Kaufman

There is a growing interest by citizens to learn more about what’s going on in their community: What’s in the air I breathe? What does it mean for my health and the health of my family? How can I learn more about these things and even be involved in the process? Is there a way for me to measure, learn, and share information about my local air quality?

Researchers at EPA have developed the virtual Air Sensors Citizen Science Toolbox to help citizens answer these types of questions and more. With the recent release of the Toolbox web page, citizens can now visit http://go.usa.gov/NnR4 and find many different resources at this one simple location. As a citizen scientist myself, I am very excited to learn that there are funding opportunities for individuals and communities to conduct their own air monitoring research projects. The Funding Sources for Citizen Science Database is just one of the many resources on the Toolbox webpage.

One of the resources available as part of the Toolbox is the Air Sensors Guidebook, which explores low-cost and portable air sensor technologies, provides general guidelines on what to look for in obtaining a sensor, and examines important data quality features.

Compact air sensor that could be used by citizen scientists to monitor local air quality.

Compact air sensor that could be used by citizen scientists to monitor local air quality.

To understand the current state of the science, the Toolbox webpage also includes the Sensor Evaluation Report, which summarizes performance trials of low-cost air quality sensors that measure ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Future reports to be posted on the webpage will summarize findings on particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor performance evaluations.

As they are developed, more tools will be posted on the webpage, including easy-to-understand operating procedures for select low-cost sensors; basic ideas for data analysis, interpretation, and communication; and other helpful information.

I believe the Toolbox is a great resource for citizens to learn more about air sensor technology at a practical level. It will provide guidance and instructions to citizens to allow them to effectively collect, analyze, interpret, and communicate air quality data. The ultimate goal is to give citizens like you and me the power to collect data about the air we breathe.

About the author: Amanda Kaufman is an Environmental Health Fellow from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). She is hosted by EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national 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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Interested in air sensors? Tune in to our webinar!

By Dustin Renwick

Soccer goalie with outstretched hand

Goal? Sensors will help make the call.

Sensors are everywhere these days. Some determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line in the World Cup. Others help EPA, state and local agencies, and communities take a more in-depth look at air quality.

Commercial manufacturers continue to develop low-cost air sensors that are portable and can relay data in nearly real-time. EPA researchers have begun to develop sensors and test their potential applications. Join our webinar on July 8 at 1 p.m. ET to learn more.

EPA researcher Ron Williams presented a small set of findings at the 2014 Air Sensors workshop in June, the fourth in a series of workshops designed to explore the opportunities and challenges associated with next-generation air quality monitoring technologies and data. Check out the Twitter feed for a look at the discussions that happened last month.

The sensor team, including Williams, has tested these new technologies in the laboratory and in the field. The group assessed how the sensors performed under a range of environmental conditions and with several different kinds of air pollutants. The team also evaluated the technical side of the sensors, including features such as data transmission and battery life.

EPA's Village Green Project, a solar-topped bench with air sensors

EPA’s Village Green Project

Williams will share much more information on the webinar, including the progress of the Village Green Project air monitor prototype and newly published reports about the use of these low-cost technologies.

“We have a lot to learn about sensors, their use, and how they can be applied for a wide variety of air monitoring applications,” Williams said.

“This presentation will give viewers an opportunity to understand what we at EPA have been doing and where the future lies in better understanding sensors and their potential applications.”

If you have any interest in the how sensors are transforming clean air science, the webinar will be worth watching!

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

 

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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A New Frontier for Air Sensors 2014

By Dustin Renwick

palm-sized air quality sensor

Compact air quality sensor fits in the palm of your hand.

The wearable market has expanded its product line—from smart glasses and smart watches to dozens of different fitness tracker wristbands and T-shirts that interact with the world around you.

What you don’t see in these gadgets is the tiny technologies that make it possible for your T-shirt to light up or for you to tap your wrist and see how many calories you’ve burned.

Similar to how computers shrunk from the size of rooms to the size of your front pocket, sensors have also been developed in ever decreasing dimensions.

One of the major applications for EPA: sensors that measure air quality. Agency researchers and others can use these portable, real-time sensors in the environment to gain a more intricate picture of what’s happening in our communities.

We’ve hosted a competition won by a design for a wearable sensor that estimates a person’s exposure to air pollution. EPA grants fund broad cookstove research, some of which includes the use of air sensors to measure pollution from indoor cookstoves.

Last fall, EPA collaborators published a seminal paper on the sensor revolution in a top journal, Environmental Science & Technology. The journal received more than 5,400 submissions in 2013 on a variety of topics, and EPA’s research won first runner-up for best feature paper.

One of the most important parts of this field of study is the diversity of people interested in the work.

Next week, we’ll hold an air sensors workshop to spark more discussions and continue this important work advancing innovative air sensor technologies by bringing together scientists, policy experts, technology developers, data analysts, and leaders from government, industry, and community groups.

To learn more about the opportunities and challenges that air sensors present, register for the webcast of our workshop on June 9-10.

We’ll live tweet the event from @EPAresearch using #AirSensors.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

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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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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