Into Thin Air: A look into why the air surrounding us is so important

By: Lo Hutelmyer, Venture Outdoors Youth Program Manager and Brittney Aston, Venture Outdoors Trip Leader Specialist

It is generally known that poor air quality can lead to serious health problems. That’s exactly why Venture Outdoors and Women for a Healthy Environment have teamed up. These organizations are working together to share their knowledge with students in a fun, interactive way at several after-school programs around the Pittsburgh area.

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Air quality lessons are just a few of the regular outdoor programs that Venture Outdoors facilitates with its six after-school and school partners: Mt. Ararat in East Liberty; Providence Connections and Manchester Academic Charter School on the North Side; the Center that C.A.R.E.S. in the Hill District; and the Brashear Association and A Giving Heart in Allentown. Through the Youth Outdoor Recreation Program (YORP), Venture Outdoors Trip Leaders meet twice monthly with over 130 area youth in grades K-6 to engage in outdoor recreation and to educate them on environmental topics including air quality.

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On these particular air quality lessons, the Venture Outdoors Trip Leaders were assisted by Chelsea Holmes from Women for a Healthy Environment, another Pittsburgh organization that is focused on educating the public on healthy living. These lessons allow the students to measure the amount of particulate matter in the air through what is known as a Speck monitor – a small, easy-to-use device that can be plugged into a power source and visually shows changes in the level of particulate matter in the air on a screen. These monitors were developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Create lab and can be checked out by anyone from the Carnegie Library. Chelsea and her co-workers at Women for a Healthy Environment have worked with students in using the Speck monitors before but have never been able to bring these lessons outside – until now.

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In order to bring the monitors outside, Venture Outdoors provided portable solar power systems donated by Green Mountain Energy. Similar in size and shape to a standard briefcase, the solar power systems have a portion of a photovoltaic (PV) panel on one side and a flashlight on the other. Energy from the sun hitting the PV panel is converted into electricity that is then utilized to power up a small device that is plugged into the outlet – in this case, the Speck monitor. With two portable solar power systems, students were able to plug in the Speck monitors in various locations outdoors in order to enhance the lesson and increase the amount of data they were able to collect. Additionally, the students were able to see first hand how a solar panel works.
Students recorded the detected fine particulate matter and monitored the changes and trends in particle concentration while spraying hair spray, Axe body spray, baby powder, and even water into the air!

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Students were amazed at how these everyday products change the quality of our air. After using baby powder in the same area as a Speck monitor, students observed the fine particles (PM2.5) raise to over 1,600! This definitely made the students rethink the use of products regularly utilized in their homes.
It’s easy to forget exactly what you are doing to the air around you because you can’t specifically see the damages. That is why Speck monitors are so crucial to this lesson plan and learning development.

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