Published: Nov. 7, 2016

Students from Delta County and Greeley high schools pose at the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver following a roundtable discussion on their projects with health professionals.

Students from Delta County and Greeley high schools pose at the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver following a roundtable discussion on their projects with health professionals.

How healthy is vaping? As more people ‘light’ up with e-cigarettes, a group of Western Slope teenagers are using a CU Boulder partnership with their high school to find out.

"A lot of students get into e-cigarettes because they think they're safer," said Ashley Sanchez, a sophomore at Delta County High School in Delta, Colorado, a town of about 9,000 people some 40 miles southeast of Grand Junction.

Sanchez and a group of her peers measured carbon dioxide, ozone, and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from e-cigarettes using a “pod”, a lunchbox-sized container housing monitoring devices provided by CU Boulder mechanical engineering professor Mike Hannigan.

It's not the kind of equipment most teens would have access to, but is being made available through a unique exchange with their school that grew out of Hannigan’s ongoing air quality research.

Joining Forces

"We were going to start collecting data in Delta County and realized we would need help to do the day-to-day work. We got in touch with Ben Graves, a science teacher at Paonia High in Delta County. He offered to let us put a monitoring station on the roof of his school if he could also use it for project-based learning in his classes," Hannigan says.

In order to allow the teens to do their own research and not just use the data from the rooftop monitor, Hannigan provided Graves with multiple pods, and the program quickly grew to all four public high schools in Delta County as well as schools along the Front Range in Greeley. Graves is also still involved, now at Delta High, where he teaches the project in his AP Environmental Science classes.

In addition to the measuring instruments, the students also receive science lessons several times a year from CU Boulder engineering students, who travel to Delta County to lead classroom discussions and have since developed a formal, five-unit curriculum.

"The program reached 480 kids in rural Colorado last year," Hannigan says. "They’re learning how to do research, how to use the scientific method and answer questions."

High School Projects

Working in teams, the students design projects and use the pods to collect data. Missa Webb, who was on the e-cigarette team, was surprised with the results.

“Comparing e-cigarettes with regular cigarettes, we thought the regular cigarettes would be worse across the board because there is combustion. They were worse in VOCs and carbon dioxide, but e-cigarettes are much higher in ozone and are potentially dangerous,” says Webb.

Alexandra Eaton's team measured outdoor air quality in Paonia, Colorado, and compared it to public data in cities around the world.

"I’ve done online research before, but this was the first project where I’ve been able to do my own real research," says Eaton, a Paonia High School sophomore.

Front Range Forays

Each school held a competition to judge the best projects, with the top finishers earning the right to present their results at the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver on November 1. Eaton and Sanchez’s teams were among the winners.

At the conference, the students took part in round table discussions and answered questions from air quality professionals. Lucy Cheadle, a graduate student in Hannigan's lab helped the teens prepare for the conference.

"I think it was the best possible scenario. They got to talk one-on-one with some of the professionals there and they did really well answering questions," Cheadle says.

It was the first time all of the teams from Delta County and Greeley were together in one place.

"I thought it was really interesting. I'm interested in public health and it was cool to see other youth putting out something that matters," Webb says.

Win-Win Partnership

The projects were a positive experience for all of the students and particularly for Eaton.

"I was always super into engineering, and this is opened more doors for me. Some other students just wanted to do the project for a grade. They didn't have the same interest as me," Eaton says.

The teens aren't the only ones benefitting from the projects, as it's also given Hannigan’s graduate students, some of whom will eventually become college professors themselves, a chance to develop lesson plans and lead classroom discussions.

"It's helped improve my communication and public speaking skills," says environmental engineering graduate student Ashley Collier.

While the program originally was just an offshoot of public air-quality research, it's grown into an initiative in its own right, one Hannigan says has benefits for everyone involved.

"It's a win-win," Hannigan says.

Learn more about the project.