Published: April 3, 2019 By

AQIQ team and teachers

Air Quality Inquiry team and high school teachers at the Union Colony Preparatory and Greeley Central High School symposium. From left to right: Evan Coffey, Leighanna Hinojosa, Narelle Kipple, Liz Mock-Murphy, Eilleen Duncan, Kristen Okorn, Rachel Moore, Kelsea Keenan, Daniel Knight

When high school students from rural Colorado research air quality as it relates to the things that interest them most, the result is enthusiastic students and one-of-a-kind projects.

Through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Air Quality Inquiry project, students are asking questions like: how does air quality differ around dogs versus cats? Near old cars versus new cars? At basketball games versus swim meets? Or inside boys’ locker rooms versus girls’ locker rooms?

“Seeing kids who aren’t typically excited about science doing well and presenting on topics that really interest them is so rewarding,” said junior Kelsea Keenan, a mechanical engineering student at CU Boulder.

Over the course of the year, she and her classmates in CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science have been learning about air quality and mentoring high school students across Colorado.

The Air Quality Inquiry project was born out of CU Boulder’s AirWaterGas research led by Professor Joe Ryan, which investigates sustainable pathways for oil and gas development. When CU Boulder AirWaterGas researchers installed air quality sensors atop Paonia High School, teachers wondered if they could use these sensors in their classrooms to teach students.

Thus began the Air Quality Inquiry project, which supplies classrooms with sophisticated but affordable sensors to conduct experiments in addition to college mentors to help guide their research. The project now partners with eight schools in Colorado: Greeley Central High School, Union Colony Preparatory, Lone Star High School, Alameda International Middle School, Palisade High School, Delta High School, Paonia High School and Hotchkiss High School, with more to come. Each year, roughly 600 K-12 students and their teachers are impacted by the Air Quality Inquiry curriculum.

The sensors provided to students are referred to as pods and were designed in mechanical engineering Professor Mike Hannigan’s lab at CU Boulder. Roughly the size of a lunchbox and cheap enough to distribute across schools, pods allow students to measure carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds over time. 

“My favorite thing was watching the data come in,” said high school student German Gutierrez at the Greeley symposium on March 21. Students said they enjoyed working with the pods and were taught to interpret graphs generated via an online platform. This enabled them to make their own conclusions about air quality in various settings.

“We had a lot of freedom when we were choosing what to study and how to execute the experiment,” said high school student Aaliyanah Hubert-Combs.

AQIQ Education Director Daniel Knight, who works with the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the Air Quality Inquiry project is based on two related concepts: inquiry-based learning and citizen science. Both ideologies stress the importance of placing scientific equipment in the hands of ordinary people, empowering them to ask and answer their own questions.

Growing up in a rural K-12 school where his mother was a first-grade teacher, Knight said he caught the education bug early.

“One of the more promising parts of hands-on learning is that it can reach people who are hard to reach,” Knight said.

In the future, the team hopes to expand outreach beyond air quality to robotics or biomedical needs. 

The project is supported by a CU Boulder Outreach Award, which assists with faculty-led projects that connect research, teaching and creative work with public needs across the state. The Air Quality Inquiry project is also partnered with Joseph Polman, associate dean for research in CU Boulder’s School of Education, and learning sciences PhD student Leighanna Hinojosa. Hinojosa is interested in researching how mentorship can engage students in science and help retain nontraditional students, so she is studying how the Air Quality Inquiry course affects CU student mentors.

“Education can’t just be the filling of a bucket; it has to light a fire,” Hannigan said. “Seeing these kids build relationships with our students while learning to ask their own questions is more fun and more impactful than publishing a paper.”

There are four upcoming symposiums across Colorado:

  • April 4, 8:50 a.m. to 10:10 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. to 1 p.m. at Palisade High School in Palisade, CO
  • April 5, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Paonia High School in Paonia, CO
  • April 15, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Lone Star High School in Yuma, CO
  • May 16, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Delta High School in Delta, CO