Scientists enlist schoolkids to help with air quality research

Pupils at a Central Otago primary school are helping NIWA air quality scientists learn more about pollution in their town in a four-month project that will track where smoke comes from and where it goes over winter.

NIWA air quality scientist Dr Ian Longley and his colleagues have teamed up with Year 5 and 6 pupils at Alexandra Primary School to learn more about how smoke from home heating is causing air quality problems in the town and how these problems might be solved.

“We need a better understanding of where and when the emissions occur which we think the schoolchildren can help us with,” Dr Longley said.

Alexandra is known as one of New Zealand’s most polluted towns and regularly exceeds the National Standard for air quality.

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NIWA has developed a low-cost sensor known as an ODIN or Outdoor Dust Information Node. ODINs are usually fixed to power poles and enable communities to observe, understand and ultimately control their local air quality in a much more direct way than previously possible.

“Many New Zealand towns have a single air quality monitoring station, run by their regional or district council, whereas others have none,” Dr Longley said. “But we can reduce the cost and size of monitors so potentially every neighbourhood could have one. These could identify problems and their causes so people could work more constructively with councils on devising solutions.”

By the end of winter, NIWA plans to have installed up to 100 ODINs across Alexandra. The ODINs transmit air quality data in real time enabling researchers to build up a picture of how it varies from day to day and place to place.

An adapted version of the ODIN, will also be assembled at school and taken home by the pupils for a week at a time to provide a snapshot of what’s going on with smoke inside their own homes. 

“This is also a chance for the children to understand where data comes from in a way that is real and personal to them.”

In addition NIWA meteorologist Maria Augutis will be providing students with weekly video weather forecasts focusing on the connection between air quality and weather.

The children will also be asked to use an app-based survey to record whether they can see or smell smoke and whether it has affected their breathing or caused them to cough.

That data will then be matched up with the air quality information provided from the outdoor ODINs to provide a more detailed overall picture of on the impact of poor air quality.

The ODINs were first trialled in Rangiora and confirmed NIWA’s technology provides valuable new information about pollution levels at different times of the day and under different weather conditions.

NIWA also worked in partnership with the University of Montana in the US to conduct further trails in Idaho.

Dr Longley says the Alexandra schoolpupils are acting as a test group helping the scientists understand how citizens can become directly involved in air quality science with the aim of extending the programme into the wider community next year.

“We hope to scale this up next year and roll it out to more schools as well as rural areas to help stimulate informed debate about the problem and what can be done about it.”

The school project is a government initiative under the Unlocking Curious Minds programme which aims to encourage and enable better engagement with science and technology for all New Zealanders.

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