Saturday 4 April 2015

Schoolchildren monitor local air quality!

A group of schoolchildren from Oasis Academy Brightstowe in Bristol (GB) have been utilising Ashtead Technology’s air quality monitors to measure air pollution during their daily commute to school. The project is part of the BBC News School Report which provides 11-16 year-olds across Britain with an opportunity to make and broadcast their own news.

With support from BBC staff, partners and teachers, the BBC News School Report helps students develop their journalistic skills to become School Reporters. Then, in March, schools take part in an annual News Day, simultaneously creating video, audio and text-based news reports, and publishing them on a school website, to which the BBC creates a link, thereby providing an expanded audience.

“We were delighted to be involved – at the invitation of the BBC – in the air quality monitoring project,” commented Theo Berry, an English Teacher at the school. “Using the handheld air quality monitors was a really exciting and engaging way of involving students in an experiment with real-world outcomes. Rather than being confined to a laboratory, with the air quality monitors they were able to take scientific methods out into the world, following normal routes home and discovering how their everyday lives are affected. Using the air quality monitors was also a fantastic opportunity for cross-curricular work – it’s not every day that science and media classes can combine!”

After deciding to focus their report on air quality, the school enlisted the help of local air quality expert Dr Jo Barnes, from the University of the West of England’s Air Quality Management Resource Centre. Jo says: “One of the reasons for the choice of air quality as the subject matter for the investigation was Bristol’s recent success in being awarded the title of European Green Capital 2015 by the European Commission Expert Panel.” Bristol impressed the jury with its investment plans for transport and energy. The city has committed a budget of €500m for transport improvements by 2015 and up to €300m for energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2020.

Jo advised on the selection, configuration and demonstration of appropriate monitoring equipment from Ashtead Technology’s fleet of rental instruments. “We chose TSI Sidepaks for this project,” Jo says, “because they are lightweight, battery powered and able to continuously log air quality. Six children participated in the trial over a period of three days and we set the monitors to log data every second in order to provide a detailed record of air quality during the children’s commute to school.”

The TSI Sidepaks are supplied with inlet conditioners (impactors) that allow 10, 2.5, or 1.0 microns, which means that users can select the range of particle size that is of most interest. With a built-in pump, the units draw air in from the environment and a laser diode is directed at the aerosol stream. Scattered light is then measured by a photodetector at 90° to the light beam, and the intensity of this light is a function of the particle mass concentration. Real-time data is displayed, in addition to an eight-hour time-weighted average.

Jo continues: “As a short-term project, the facility to rent the equipment from Ashtead Technology was ideal because the purchase cost would have been preclusive. The instruments were relatively simply to set up and operate and the children quickly became competent at running them.”

The children clearly understood the relevance of the trial; Lewis said: “We were monitoring air pollution from traffic – especially cars – and the local factories in Avonmouth,” and Greg said: “The air quality monitors were easy to use – it was simple to remember how to get them working.”

One of the issues associated with air pollution is that, in comparison with the smogs of the 1950s, it is no longer visible. However, Guaire explained: “Poor air quality damages your lungs and makes people’s asthma worse.”

Sadly, the results of the trial were inconclusive, with no clear correlation between pollution levels and mode of transport. However, Jo says: “This was a very small trial so it was never going to produce statistically significant results. However, scientific experimentation rarely delivers simple incontrovertible conclusions, so for the children; it was a good exercise in understanding the importance of experimental procedure and learning how to interpret results. It also gave them an opportunity to speculate on how a future trial could deliver more meaningful data.” Emily, one of the students, agreed: “We’d need to be using more air quality monitors for a longer period of time to get more scientific results,” she added.

Looking forward, Theo Berry says: “We’re hoping to extend and expand our research project, working hand-in-hand with the University of the West of England, to gain more conclusive results about which means of transport offers most protection from poor air quality – but for this we’ll need more air quality monitors.”

Josh Thomas at Ashtead Technology has since offered to supply further monitors for a longer period and it is hoped that the follow-up project will commence soon. He says: “We are always happy to work with clients to solve their instrumentation needs, but this was a particularly interesting project because, as an instrument rental company, we do not always get to see the results of monitoring work. So, it was very gratifying to see the school’s video, and great to see young people learning about air quality.”

• Ashtead Technology will be showing their capability at the AQE Show 22-23 Aipril 2015.

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