Not Your Usual Summer Vacation

by Dena Vallano

For many high school and college students, summer means lazy days by the pool and not cracking open a textbook until September. However, some students are not only excited to spend their summer learning, but spend 10 weeks immersed in a fast-paced, interactive, research program called Summer at the Edge (SATE) offered through the Air Force Research Lab’s Wright Brothers Institute (WBI). A technology powerhouse that fosters world-class research and development collaborations and technology innovation, WBI brings together some of the best and brightest high school and college level students to tackle challenging research problems.

This summer, the EPA and WBI have joined forces to ask a team of 14 students a question that impacts both the EPA and the Air Force Research Lab: can citizen scientists use inexpensive, real-time sensors to collect air quality data and better understand air pollution trends in their communities?

Project Tricorder's Sensor Prototype

Through this partnership, my colleagues on EPA’s Innovation Team and I are serving as mentors to the talented young scientists as they try to piece together an answer to this question. We are working with team members of Project Tricorder, who have ambitiously set out to create a multi-faceted sensor network connected to an Android smartphone platform. As mentors, we have engaged with the team to help define their project topic and questions, provided resources on several Do-It-Yourself (DIY) air monitoring sensors, and answered technical questions related to air monitoring, data interpretation, and visualization.

I have truly enjoyed engaging these students and am continually impressed with their enthusiasm and quality of work.  Their excitement is palpable and definitely contagious. For example, the student team just sent us a prototype of their sensor housing for review – and I was completely blown away!

The students have been diligently working through June and July to develop a prototype of and test their sensor, which will measure environmental, health, and security factors such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide pollution, pulse rate, radiation, and motion. All of their hard work will finally pay off when they, along with several other student research teams, have the opportunity to demonstrate their final product at the Summer at the Edge Open House on August 13th at Wright State University. Over 100 students across more than 30 student research teams will be there to show off projects from a wide range of fields including smartphone app development, virtual reality, cyber security, and many others.

Tune into @EPAresearch on August 13 as we send updates and pictures of the exciting projects we discover at the Open House, including the sensor network developed by Project Tricorder. I have a feeling this won’t be your typical school report on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

About the author: Dr. Dena Vallano is currently a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in EPA’s Immediate Office of the Assistant Administrator for Research and Development. Prior to her fellowship, she was a postdoctoral scholar in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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