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High schoolers to share air quality research

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Since last fall, nearly 150 Delta County high schoolers have been conducting hands-on air quality research, thanks to a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and four local high schools.

Now the students are ready to share their research projects at the Air Quality Inquiry Science Symposium on May 16 from 6-7:30 p.m. at Delta High School, 1400 Pioneer Road. The event is open to the public and includes a free dinner.

Under the guidance of CU-Boulder mechanical engineering associate professor Michael Hannigan, graduate and undergraduate students have worked closely with teachers from Delta, Cedaredge, Hotchkiss and Paonia high schools to help the students design projects that test air quality.

"The students have done everything from collecting indoor air quality in their schools and homes to examining emissions from their vehicles to sampling for methane on their family's ranch," said Ashley Collier, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. "We encourage the high school students to choose a research question that interests them and connects to their daily lives."

The high school students collect samples using low-cost, next-generation air quality monitors developed in Hannigan's lab and then analyze their own data.

Ben Graves, who teaches environmental science at Delta High School, said these projects help students connect what they are learning in the classroom with how scientists and researchers use and analyze data.

"The research projects allow students to imagine new possibilities for themselves and new fields like environmental science, complex data analysis and engineering," said Graves. "Working with CU empowers my students and makes them feel that their scientific research is important. These types of academic experiences with university-level researchers are rare for students in under-resourced rural schools like Delta High."

Hannigan said the partnership is equally valuable for his engineering students, who are able to engage with high school students in a way that reinforces their own knowledge and confidence as engineers. The CU-Boulder students take the course as an independent, project-based learning class.

For Hanadi Salamah, a junior studying mechanical engineering, the experience taught her how to troubleshoot equipment and analyze data from a distance and also how to get students excited about research.

"I have learned a lot about teaching techniques and about being enthusiastic while teaching and dealing with high school students," Salamah said. "It is really rewarding and it absolutely reinforces the material and provides you with a great understanding of the concepts."

Hannigan and Collier began working with the Western Slope Conservation Center to monitor air quality three years ago, which developed into a baseline air quality study and an educational program in the local high schools. This year the educational program has expanded to Greeley. The project culminates each spring with the symposium featuring posters that demonstrate the students' findings.

"Discussing their projects with other students, teachers, parents and researchers provides a nice conclusion to the entire project," Collier said. "Students are provided with an opportunity to talk about what went well, what didn't and what surprised them. Overall, the science symposium allows them to show off their work and reflect on the experience."

The program was originally supported by the CU-Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement and is now funded through the National Science Foundation's AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, based at CU-Boulder.

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