Published: Sept. 19, 2023 By

StudentsPodResearchers at CU Boulder have received a prestigious NSF Award to teach students in rural K-12 schools around Colorado about air and soil quality monitoring. And with additional funding from a University of Colorado Boulder Outreach Award and a DEI Working Group Action Grant from the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering, they look to expand their partnership with K-12 schools in Mongolia, as well.

Cofounded by Professor Michael Hannigan and Associate Research Professor Daniel Knight, the outreach program is called the Colorado Science and Engineering Inquiry Collaborative and works in conjunction with the Mechanical Engineering course MCEN 4/5291, Project Based Learning in Rural Schools. The outreach program trains, supports and places CU students in underserved rural high schools that struggle to attract science teachers and have little engineering education available.

Hannigan and Knight work in collaboration with Professor Joseph Polman, the associate dean for research in the CU Boulder School of Education, and Angela Bielefeldt, a professor in Civil, Environment and Architectural Engineering. They plan to use a total of $457,531 in funding to expand their programming and services for the upcoming academic year.

“This is the seventh concurrent year that we received an Outreach Award,” Knight said. “We have a lot of passion for this project.”

Project Based Learning in Rural Schools works with 13 K-12 schools, half of which are based in the Western Slope area in Colorado. Other areas in the state include the San Luis Valley and the plains in northeastern Colorado. Along with the expansion of their partnerships with K-12 schools in Mongolia, Hannigan and Knight plan to begin working with Pueblo East High School, where the majority of students are Hispanic/Latino and potentially first generation college students. With the help of this year’s funding, they plan to begin translating their engineering curriculum into Spanish.

Project Based Learning in Rural Schools is a full-year course for CU Boulder students. The students will spend the fall semester improving their teaching skills and learning how to teach the outreach program’s hands-on curriculum to the K-12 students later in the spring semester. There is also a summer program focused on summer camps for K-12 students that is open to participants in the course.

“I have been really impressed with how the organization and design of this unique educational outreach program provides a quality learning experience for both CU engineering students and high school students at rural schools throughout the state,” Polman said.

The core of the course curriculum is based around air and soil quality monitors, which are known as “Pods,” and were developed in the Hannigan Laboratory. The air quality Pods measure aerosols, along with particulate matter, or PM, which are minute particles suspended in the atmosphere and account for a specific form of air pollution. Inhalable PM, which is less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10), and fine PM (PM2.5), which is less than 2.5 microns in diameter, are both known for their negative effects on human health and the environment. The soil quality Pods measure temperature, moisture, carbon dioxide and light.

Equipped with these monitors, CU Boulder students will visit the K-12 schools in the spring. For the first trip, the CU Boulder students will teach the highschoolers how to take measurements with the monitor and mentor them as they use the monitors to engage in inquiry-based learning projects, which allow K-12 students to ask and answer their own air and soil quality questions in their local community.

“There's something about getting your hands on a project that teaches you so much more,” said Shreya Venkatesh, a third-year engineering graduate student who is involved in the outreach program. “These kids come up with an original question, and then they test it with the materials we give them and the knowledge we teach them in a couple of weeks. They get involved. And there's just something about that process that’s so much more rewarding than just listening to a lecture and then doing an assignment.”

Some students decide to place the monitors around coal mines to measure its emissions, while others put them around landfills, feed lots or other agricultural settings.

“But other students come up with projects that I never would have thought of,” Knight said. “One student looked at the emissions from a PlayStation console. Another slept with a dog in his room, the next night with two dogs, and the third with three, and looked at the differences. And a lot of projects had to do with snowmobiles, four-wheelers and other outdoor projects like that.”

“At the end of the year, the rural high school students present their projects at a symposium,” Hannigan added. “They are often proud of their projects, so it is fun to see that. It’s also so cool to see those high school students looking to our students for guidance and mentoring. Our CU students shine.”

The Mongolian Chapter of the outreach program is facilitated by a partner NGO, Public Lab Mongolia. Like their American counterparts in Colorado, college students at the National University of Mongolia engage in a similar role with Mongolian high schools. With the help of the new funding, Hannigan and Knight plan to integrate the two groups of university students through Zoom meetings. Once paired up, U.S. and Mongolian mentors will facilitate the sharing of school project ideas and results. Ultimately, Hannigan and Knight plan to create a summer camp in Mongolia during the summer of 2024, where the two teams will meet face-to-face for team partnership development.

“I’m really excited to see the project and research expanding with the new NSF grant, and a more extensive program in Mongolia,” Polman said. “This will allow us to further explore the impact of culture and place on inquiry-based learning."