Field Days: Learning what Air Quality Scientists REALLY Do

By Erika Sasser

EPA scientists demonstrate air pollution research equipment with students.

EPA scientists demonstrate air pollution research equipment.

So we’ve all seen those crazy moon suits that people wear when they’re trying to clean up an oil spill or work on a contaminated waste site, but how many of us have actually gotten to wear one?  Thirty lucky seventh-grade girls from the GEMS (Girls Empowered by Math & Science) program organized by Winston-Salem State University got a chance to do just that at a special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach event on July 19, 2012.

A group of EPA staff (all women, and mostly scientists, except for a few interested hangers-on like me!) manned five different stations to introduce the girls to the world of air pollution measurement fieldwork.  Our hope was to free them from “talking about” science and let them actually get their hands on the instruments and equipment we use to measure the pollution around us.

Each station gave the girls an opportunity to experience a different aspect of “life in the field.”  They were able to pick ideal case-study sites for air pollution measurements, explore a field tool bag, and figure out what size solar panel they would need to run monitoring equipment in the field.  They demonstrated their expertise with a wire stripper to connect wires between a battery and an LED light.  We’re proud to report that all the teams got their bulbs to light up!

Fulfilling the role of “an assistant volunteer with no prerequisites but enthusiasm,” I helped with the air quality monitoring equipment station.  Here we used a fan and a particle generator to simulate air pollution from an event like a forest fire.  The girls had fun changing the anemometer’s wind speed and direction readings by blowing on the sensors, testing the particle counters, and turning on the salt-water particle generator.  Fortunately there was an expert on hand to answer all their questions!

And since the day wouldn’t have been complete without shopping (always popular with teenagers), the field safety station was set up to allow them to try on and “purchase” safety gear for different environments (like respirators and protective suits) within a set budget.  Hopefully they learned a lot about protective field gear, and we got some cute pictures out of the deal!

The girls also went on a building tour of EPA’s award-winning, LEED certified facility.  But according to them, the best part of the day was getting to eat lunch in EPA’s beautiful lakeside café!

About the Author: Erika Sasser is a Senior Policy Advisor in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.  She works on air quality and climate change issues.

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