Real World Experience: Collecting Data and Thinking Critically with Citizen Science

by | Nov 29, 2016

In October, a group of 20 women canvassed the UNC Charlotte campus in five teams and monitored the air for PM 2.5. Using AirBeam monitors, they investigated evidence of invisible fine particulate matter, a dangerous air pollutant. The women are part of a freshman seminar called “Women Who Create” co-taught by Professor Susan Harden and Provost Joan Lorden. The program is designed to encourage women into majors and fields involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Clean Air Carolina (CAC) partnered with Harden and Lorden to offer real world experience collecting air quality data with citizen science as part of the Clean Air Zones Monitoring Project. After an overview on air quality and how it impacts health, students moved from the classroom to investigating the air outside. Each team had a different route to explore with an AirBeam air quality monitor. AirBeams make air visible using an Android tablet with the AirCasting app connected by Bluetooth. Students can see the levels of PM 2.5 encountered in real time with a measurement taken every second.

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Students learned by doing, and the data they collected is now part of this ongoing study to learn more about local air quality. CAC gave the students training in operating the air monitoring equipment, using standard protocols, and introduced them to AirCasting.org, a website where the public can view data collected by citizen scientists using AirBeam monitors around the country. The UNC Charlotte students will take their collected air quality data further by developing their own air inquiry project they will investigate as part of their STEM class.

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Citizen science, often done in partnership with scientists, is based on and guided by scientific research principles. It uses the power of many to gather data on a scale that no single scientist could gather in a lifetime. It also increases scientific literacy and encourages people to think about solutions to the problems our country faces. These students are learning firsthand about the importance of clean air and are helping collect local air quality data. This information will help us create healthier, more sustainable communities and lives.

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