The Air Out There: How Middle School Students Are Using Data to Reduce Pollution

LiamLiam Gibbons ’24 lifts an AirBeam air quality sensor to the exhaust pipe on the back of Cannon’s bus 1, squinting to read the data off a corresponding iPad. He’s measuring for hyper-local particles of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5. In layman’s terms – air pollution. Liam is hoping that by using data to uncover how much exhaust our buses put out, he and classmates can help drivers by telling them exactly when to turn on the engines so buses are sufficiently warmed up, but emit the least amount of pollution.

Liam is part of the Envirothon service learning group, composed of fifth- and sixth-graders. Students, led by teacher Jeremy Mattsson, paired with Clean Air Carolina as part of the Citizen Science Program. The organization sent speakers to campus to educate students about training, curriculum resources, and monitoring technology, then equipped them with an AirBeam air quality sensor to measure pollutants. Via Bluetooth, the AirBeam measurements are communicated once a second to the AirCasting Android app, which maps and graphs the data in real time on a smart device. This gives scientists information about environmental quality in specific areas.

That means that each day, Liam and classmates would head out to the bus lot (as well as the car line, where a device is located) to collect readings. And what did they learn from the process? “Our air isn’t perfect, so we should not believe those who say we don’t have a problem,” said Liam. “If we don’t say anything about it, we’ll see more cases of lung cancer and asthma. So it’s important that we keep looking into the atmosphere.”

Many thanks to our partner in the project, CleanAir Carolina! You can see a video they created about the experiment here.