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.