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The Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: Here’s What Schools Have to Say about Air-Quality Monitoring

The monitors have been in place just a short time – only since registration for school began a few weeks ago – but the students at Sabin World Elementary School in the Harvey Park South neighborhood have already noticed their presence, and their response so far has been inquisitive and insistent.

Air quality monitor at Sabin World Elementary School“Students are wondering what this is, and what does it mean? Where is this information coming from?” says Sabin World Principal Kirsten Frassanito. “Currently, the air-quality monitor serves as a provocation for learning to come. Air quality isn't something most of them have given much thought to, even though we have a large number of students with asthma.” 

The folks at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment’s (DDPHE) Division of Environmental Quality have been giving a lot of thought to air quality, however – hence the presence of the monitors in the first place. As one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Denver has experienced significant increases in construction and traffic congestion, which has worsened our air quality. Air pollution harms everyone, but children are more susceptible to its acute and long-term health effects, including decreased lung function, increased respiratory infections and missed days of school – all of which are issues for students with asthma attending Denver Public Schools (DPS).

Michael Ogletree, DDPHE’s Air Quality Program Manager for the City and County of Denver, and Elizabeth Babcock, DDPHE’s Air, Water and Climate Manager, and their team had a vision: A real-time, hyper-local air-quality data and programming monitor that could empower communities, families and schools to create rapid and effective responses that would limit exposure and reduce air pollution through behavior changes, advocacy and community engagement. 

The 2018 Mayors Challenge provided the first steps toward funding this critical and urgent mission. The competition is one of the first investments in the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative, an effort to help U.S. cities generate innovation and advance policy. On February 20, Denver was announced as one of 35 Champion Cities for the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.

Air quality monitor readings are displayed in easy to read graphicsIn addition to providing crucial and actionable information about air quality in real time, though, the teachers at the five schools in which the monitoring program has been implemented – Sabin World, Swansea, Fairview, Morgridge Academy and Garden Place Academy – are already thinking of ways to use the data well beyond helping kids diagnosed with asthma breathe easier.

“I think the best thing about the program is that the students have a chance to see how they can positively impact their communities in meaningful ways,” Abel Varney, a 5th-grade teacher at Sabin World, says. “They can actually use facts and data to practice making informed decisions that will affect us all one day. As a STEM and math teacher, I love the opportunity to make real connections to what scientists and mathematicians do so they may want to take a step towards those important fields as they matriculate through school and beyond.”

School administrators, teachers and members of the community have been involved in the testing process from the beginning, offering feedback and suggestions for improving the monitors, to make them as efficient and helpful as possible – and along the way, they began to list other possible uses for the collected data, particularly on the classroom level.

“Getting kids engaged in their community and the larger world is so important,” Principal Frassanito adds. “I am very excited about the learning opportunity the monitor brings to our school.”

Teachers and school administrators have identified the following potential additional uses for the air-quality monitoring systems:

  • Sharing the resulting graphs of information collected from the monitors with students to help them understand how to make sense of data and brainstorming ways to solve problems the data may reveal. For instance, as STEM teacher Varney notes, “kids may notice a spike in the mornings and afternoons when buses and cars pick up and drop off and decide to make a push to have less driving and instead have a walking bus, etc.”

  • Classroom discussions around the idea of particulates in the air and how those may relate to other phenomena, such as clouds or acid rain, and then considering ways to minimize each person’s footprint. 

  • Classroom discussions around the idea of cause and effect, as well as impact and consequences, and the opportunities to use technology to interact with their communities in positive ways, instead of being passive passengers. “I would love to teach my kiddos to look at the air quality number each day, and decide if it was okay for us to play outside or be outside for long periods of time,” says Morgridge Academy kindergarten teacher Beth Enderle. “In kindergarten, we already talk about the weather every day, and what we need to wear or do because of it.”

  • Helping students grasp a better understanding of how “real-life” numbers correlate to concepts, as well as pattern recognition and information analysis. “Kindergarten students are expected to have an idea about numbers 0-100 by the end of the year, so I think it would give them a real-life reason to start paying attention to those bigger numbers and values,” Enderle says.

Air quality monitor at SwanseaFrassanito points out that students also tend to share the things that they have learned, particularly when there is a call to action that comes from the information. “It is hard to predict exactly where they will go with their action,” she explains, “but it will likely involve an information campaign starting with anyone who will listen – typically family and friends. This will be just the starting point.”

Denver families spend an average of $3,100 a year on asthma-related medical costs, or more than $30 million annually, to provide relief for the more than 11 percent of Denver Public Schools students who have been diagnosed with asthma, a serious and potentially life-threatening chronic lung disease. The air-quality monitors quantify and assess air pollution, in an effort to determine the variables that contribute to poor air quality and to better inform decisions that could alter the effects on children diagnosed with asthma.

“Air quality probably impacts all of us, more than we realize or care to admit,” says Enderle. “But especially for our kids, bad air can turn a difficult day with asthma into a long number of days with very challenging health complications, as some of their body systems are so compromised that a tough struggle specific to asthma can snowball into multiple other problems and symptoms.” 

Principal Frassanito says she thinks that in addition to the practical applications, though, the air-quality monitors could also lay the foundation for getting students engaged in the world on a more significant level.

“It may be tough. We live in a society valuing convenience,” she adds. “It's hard to keep making choices out of convenience, however, when one understands the negative impact of that choice. Change has to start somewhere, and kids are often the best place to start.”

For more information on Denver’s air-quality monitoring entry in the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, visit the Champion Cities page. To see all of the critical work DDPHE is doing for Public Health and the Environment, follow us on Twitter and Facebook