UM nets $1.2M grant to teach high-school students about their community’s air pollution

Students learn about respiratory health via a hands-on demonstration with pig lungs. (School of Public & Community Health Sciences)

The University of Montana received a five-year grant this week that will help continue to fund a partner program dedicated to educating students about air pollution and scientific research.

The $1.2 million Science Education Partnership Award was given to UM’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences within the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences.

UM received the award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and will help buy air samplers for the Clean Air and Healthy Homes Program for participating middle and high schools in Montana, Idaho and Alaska.

The program, which has fostered student interests in science for 15 years, targets about 30 schools and 5,000 students in rural and underserved areas. Students will conduct their own air pollution research within their classrooms and homes.

“We’re basically targeting these schools that don’t have other opportunities and specifically reach out to give them the opportunity to engage their kids in learning about science,” said Tony Ward, principal investigator of the program and UM professor of public health. “And for the teachers, giving them professional development opportunities that they may not otherwise get.”

Students receive an air sampler that can be used to measure air pollution particulates. Radon, carbon monoxide, smoke and other pollutants can be measured and easily read on a screen.

Household activities like vacuuming and even using a microwave produce a certain amount of particles.

After measuring pollutants for about a year, students can then present their findings to an audience either in their schools – or to surrounding universities with travel expenses paid for by the program.

“It’s kind of the final part of the scientific process of collecting the data, interpreting the data and getting up in front of an audience,” Ward said. “We’ve learned that’s a very powerful motivator and experience for students that they get out of this program.”

Particulates in the air can be too small to smell or see, and many individuals are exposed to matter that could be harmful and increase their risk of developing respiratory problems, lung cancer, cardiovascular issues and heart disease.

“We’re exposed to it every day, both indoors and outdoors. A good example is wildfire smoke,” Ward said. “That smoke is composed of these tiny particles that we study in this research program. There have been numerous studies throughout the world that have shown there are really no safe levels of breathing in these particles.”

In addition to studying pollution, the curriculum is designed for teachers to educate students on the risks involved in breathing pollution, what to do about it, and how it affects the cardiovascular and respiratory systems in the body.

Judges and students listen to student research presentations at the Annual Clean Air & Healthy Homes Symposium. (School of Public & Community Health Sciences)

“I think a lot of people don’t understand or realize that during the winter months, we actually have a really high level of pollution from wood stoves and because we have temperature inversions and live in valleys,” he said. “All of that pollution is allowed to build up over a period of time, and the levels that we breathe during the winter months can sometimes be equivalent to what we breathe during the summer when we have a forest fire.”

Some students have found high levels of particulates in the school’s air that the students and staff breathe, resulting in certain safety adjustments.

Superior High School found high levels of radon in the air, prompting administrators to install a radon mitigation system. A woodshop class at Corvallis High School also installed a ventilation system due to the heavy particulate in the air from class projects.

“We hear that all the time,” Ward said. “Whether the school is making behavioral changes or the parents are making behavioral changes or just the kids being more informed on what the issues are. Once you’re informed about what the problems are, then you’re able to make informed decisions on how to protect your health, their health and also the health of their community members.”

In collaboration with the International Heart Institute, St. Patrick Hospital and the University of Montana Health & Medicine initiative, students from Sentinel, Hellgate, Big Sky and other high schools are able to job shadow employees in research and biomedical science.

With the renewed funding, a few new things are changing within the program. Students will be able to conduct research with personal breathing zone samplers, or wearable samplers that will test the air they breathe 24 hours a day.

Schools will also experiment with different forms of effectively communicating students’ findings, either through school presentations, traveling to universities or through a science fair.

With five more years of funding, Ward knows that more students will be able to learn more about the air and the science around them.

“It provides an opportunity to these students that really don’t have other access to universities or colleges, especially in these very rural and remote towns,” he said. “It also gives them the opportunity to interact with university researchers and show them that they also can go to college and do great things in the future.”