Idaho, New Zealand Students Learn About Air Quality

Aug 9, 2018

Kellogg High School teacher Mark Lama examines an air quality monitor that his students will use this winter to measure air quality at their homes.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

What do Kellogg, Idaho and Alexandra, New Zealand have in common? Smoky air.

“Alexandra has had a persistent problem with air quality for decades," said Ian Longley, a scientist at NIWA, which is the New Zealand version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nineteen time zones to the west, Kellogg has had some of the same issues.

EPA has judged western half of north Idaho’s Silver Valley as not being meeting federal clean air rules for at least a few days out of the year, usually in the winter when air inversions trap cold air and pollutants close to the surface. One of the culprits: the pollution created by wood stoves. Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality is taking a series of voluntary steps to improve air quality. One is to encourage residents to swap their old wood stoves with cleaner-burning versions.

One of the other steps is education.

“We believe that the future is communities that are involved in air quality management, so we really need to engage with communities, get them interested in the issue, get them aware if there’s something that can be done," Longley said.

In Alexandra, the government is teaching students about air quality. And, because the world is getting smaller, NIWA is now beginning a partnership with Idaho’s DEQ, the Kellogg School District and the University of Montana’s School of Public and Community Health Services.

This week, Brett Taylor from the University of Montana shared a new curriculum about air quality with Kellogg teachers.

“This one is a little more geared toward high school, but probably upper middle could handle it also. It has to do with what temperature inversions,” he told a dozen teachers gathered for a two-day workshop.

“It gives kids a chance to actually do some science because traditional science classes, they’re not science. You learn about somebody else’s science. They’re more like history classes," Taylor said afterward. "Science is a process. It’s not a textbook, it’s a process, being curious about a question and figuring out how to systematically attack a problem and come up with a logical answer to the question.”

Ian Longley told Kellogg’s teachers that Alexandra students in the nine-to-11-year-old age range are given simple air quality monitors to install in and around their homes. They collect samples and learn how to interpret those samples.

“We had a launch day in May and we’re planning a results day in September where we’re going to share with each other what we’ve actually learned in the process,” he said.

And then, when the kids are New Zealand are done using their sensors - remember it’s winter there not - they’ll pack them up and send them to Kellogg, said Dan Smith from Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s airshed program in the West Silver Valley. He says the kids will install them at their houses during the winter months.

“They’ll be collecting air samples, both inside the home as well as outside the home. It depends on what their hypothesis is. The kids are going to design their own science experiment,' Smith said. "We’re merely providing them the monitors that allow them to collect the data that will work. We have moisture meters if they want to find out if they want to find the effects of what dry wood is in their wood stove. They’ll be able to measure that with the moisture meter. We have CO monitors that we’re giving, carbon monoxide monitors.”

Kellogg High School teacher Mark Lama says he’ll use the sensors in his technical math class.

“I want them to see how the process of data modeling is omnipresent in their lives, whether they’re aware of it or not and how it’s used to make decisions that affect them, both at the governmental level and how they even may use it to make individual decisions about how they spend their money,” Lama said.

He hopes enough students will find it useful to spur good discussions, both in his classroom and throughout the school.  

In addition to the at-home sensors, Ian Longley says monitors will be deployed on poles through the western part of the Silver Valley to collect air samples.

“Brett (Taylor) managed to deploy about 12 of them along the West Silver Valley for a trial, so this is February through to April," Longley said. "From our point of view, the idea was to see if they survive slightly colder temperatures that you have compared to us. Yes they did.”

And so those sensors will be deployed again in the Silver Valley this winter to get an idea of whether measures taken to reduce wood smoke and other pollutants are actually working.