by Ioannis Binietoglou

skype talk

What is the atmosphere? How do we know anything about it? Why should we even care? These are some of the questions we tried to answer in a three-month-long ITaRS outreach activity in spring 2015. In cooperation with elementary schools and teachers in Greece, we - Athina Argyrouli, Pilar Gumà-Claramunt, Lev Labzovskii and Ioannis Binietoglou - performed a set of actions with the aim to engage young students in the study of the atmosphere and motivate their interest in this important topic in our life.

Greece is a country affected from many atmospheric pollutants. Car traffic is a major problem in many cities, and its effect on air quality is a major social issue. In the last years, a new taxation scheme on heating petrol has led many houses to use wood for heating during winter, and this caused intense smog episodes in most major Greek cities. Forest and urban fires are also frequent events affecting both visibility and air quality in wide regions of the country. Visibility is often reduced from desert dust transported from Northern Africa, and dusty car wind-shield and buildings are a familiar site. Despite all these, the atmosphere does not receive much attention in the educational system. Our activity aimed to motivate young students and teachers to get more interested and informed about the atmosphere and understand, in an integrated way, the problems of air quality and mechanisms that affect it.

In the core of our activity were four small sensors called Air Quality Eggs. These sensors measure temperature, humidity, as well as concentration of NO2, CO, and dust; these data are shared over the internet in real time. Air quality eggs are cheap sensors developed using a crowd-funding approach, through the Kickstarter platform. Their goal is to enable interested citizens to monitor the air quality where it really matters for them, in their home, work-place etc. We have used these sensors as a powerful tool to highlight to students the complex and variable composition in the atmosphere in their school and to make them aware of the importance of atmospheric measurements.

school smallTwo of the sensors were located in schools in the urban area of Athens, one in the rural area of Mount Pelion (~300km north of Athens) and one remained at INOE (near Bucharest, Romania) for reference and to assist troubleshooting. At a first stage, ITaRS fellows worked with teachers to decide the key messages that should be discussed with the students. The fellows prepared a short document that was shared to students and parents explaining the importance of studying the atmosphere and the data provided by the Air Quality Egg. Then, the teachers designed a set of actions, adapted to the student age and the available resources in each school. These activities included discussion about the atmosphere, introduction to the concepts of humidity, temperature, and atmospheric composition, and an online discussion with ITaRS fellows. In one of the schools these activities were combined with a visit to the National Meteorological Service where the students learned more about the weather prediction. The participating students shared their observations with the rest of the school's students, either by designing a poster at the end of their project or during common visists at the location of the Air Quality Egg. Additionally, during this period, the air quality egg was presented to an international group of students that visited INOE, where they discussed the differences in air quality between urban and rural areas.

This outreach activity has helped us learn some important lessons:

  1. Students were generally enthusiastic about the new and unusual study topic and our outreach activity has managed to arouse their curiosity about the atmosphere.
  2. These low cost/low quality air quality sensors are a powerful and versatile tool to motivate discussion and learning activities in many atmospheric and environmental issues.
  3. The quality of the measurements was enough to motivate some qualitative discussion about the atmosphere. We expect that a new generation of sensors, currently in development from many institutions, will be able to provide better tools for quantitative educational activities designed for older students (e.g. in high-schools).
  4. Interaction between researchers and educators was an interesting and long process. Establish meaningful communication between these two groups required not only translating scientific knowledge to lay terms but also understanding what are the actual questions and concerns of students, teachers and the society about the atmosphere and air quality.
  5. Future outreach activities should take into account unexpected costs, e.g. the cost to replace damaged equipment. During one program one of the Air quality eggs was broken, but this luckily happened only at the end of the activity.
  6. There is a lack of legal framework, at least in Greece, to easily and effectively organize such outreach activities. It is not clear, for example, if such activities should have approval of the Ministry of Education, who will be responsible for the equipment, and who should verify that the equipment is appropriate for use with children. In some occasions the air quality eggs were not installed in the schools based on such concerns. This highlights that performing “responsible science” and sharing the research finding with the society requires more than just good will on the scientist side but also requires wider changes on how our education and knowledge-producing systems are interlinked.

We would like to thank the staff of INOE, Romania and NTUA, Athens for their help and support during this ITaRS activity.

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