Students Track Air Pollution with AirCasting

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AirCasting_ACAM+PhoneScreenshot-300x189This spring, high school students in the Bronx and Manhattan will be learning about air quality and environmental justice by becoming citizen scientists.  SSBx has received a grant from the EPA to support its new South Bronx AirCasting Project, an educational initiative that uses hand-held air quality sensors to enable students to monitor air pollution in the South Bronx.

About the size of an apple, an AirCasting air monitor connects to a smartphone and lets a student canvass the neighborhood, measuring and mapping air quality. “Students identify pollution hot spots and try to connect them to specific sources,” says SSBx Education Director Nina Sander. “Then we’ll work together to figure out what we can do to address these sources of pollution.”

With AirCasting technology, students can share their findings with a global audience. The AirCasting app allows “Casters” to upload air quality data in real time to an online map, called a CrowdMap. As a Caster walks around the neighborhood taking readings, a color-coded trail of air quality data appears on the CrowdMap—green for clean air, “yellow for not-so-clean air, and red for really dirty air,” says Sander.

Casters can also annotate their maps on their smart phones while in the field. “Say you’re AirCasting on Bruckner Boulevard in Hunts Point,” says Sander. “You notice a spike in pollution on your phone, look up and see a dozen trucks rumbling down the street. You can drop a pin on the map at your location and write a note about what you observed. Then anyone looking at the CrowdMap online can see and understand the connection between what was happening in the community and the air quality there.”

AirCasting sensors can be installed with different features to track specific parameters of air quality. For the South Bronx AirCasting project, students will measure particulate matter, such as soot, which mainly comes from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Students will also track carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, temperature and humidity.

For the program, SSBx is working with HabitatMap, a nonprofit that released AirCasters in December 2012. “Our goal is to allow communities to record health and environmental information, then share that via the web,” says Michael Heimbinder, founder and Executive Director of HabitatMap. “People are excited about it. They like that they can easily flip between seeing where they are on the map and seeing the graph over time of the castings.”

Nate Thayer White, a science teacher and curriculum designer at Bronx Design and Construction Academy, says AirCasting is a great way to make environmental sustainability concrete. “Science is sometimes ambiguous because you can’t see it, particularly something like greenhouse gas and air pollutants. But this lets you walk around the community where you live and see this hand-held device light up. There’s also a really cool vest you wear that lights up and gives quick visual feedback about your exposure level.”

Want to Help?

The EPA grant has allowed SSBx to buy eight air-casting units, develop the curriculum for high school students, and run the program. We’re looking for:

  • Eight Android phones for these units
  • Additional support to purchase more units
  • Other interested schools

Please contact Nina Sander at nsander@ssbx.org. For more information about the AirCasting program, go to aircasting.org.