by Kate Dougherty

March 20, 2017

Want to make an impact on your students and the world at the same time? Thanks to the Internet, there’s no shortage of ways to get involved in powerful “citizen science” projects, and the teachers and students at The Option Program at the Seward School (TOPS) are jumping right in.

TOPS is a is a public K-8 magnet school in Seattle that emphasizes social justice. The fifth grade class here is taking a hands-on approach to monitoring the school’s air quality with the Safecast Air Quality Monitoring Station, a DIY electronics kit for assembling a monitoring system. The final product records GPS-tagged particulate levels, and automatically shares the data with the Safecast citizen science initiative over WIFI.  


The kit, which was part of a beta test, taught students about electronics, information technology, environmental monitoring, and air quality through hands-on citizen science activities.

Safecast Air Quality Monitoring Kit Parts

Newton Street Study Group's Pamela Moore is spearheading the project. The Newton Street Study Group is an education projects company located in Seattle, WA. The company, which was founded in 1993, teaches, researches, designs, edits, and curates learning experiences with a focus on learning skills acquisition and performance. Customers include students, institutions, and businesses.

Pamela was immediately drawn to the idea of using KitHub’s Safecast Air Quality Monitoring Kit. “I was familiar with Safecast's efforts in Fukushima and was already struck by its immense power: citizen science married to a real and understandable goal and a small team of well-connected and capable scientists and engineers,” she explains.

A grant from the Awesome Foundation funded the kit, but when the beta was about to start and she didn't have a ready cohort of students, she got in touch with administrators at her son's school, TOPS, and recruited seven volunteers from the fifth grade class.

Tying the Activity into the Curriculum

Safecast Air at Newton Street Study Group

The kids explored Arduino circuit board tutorials and Adafruit's YouTube videos before getting the kit up and running. “We did a workshop that was devoted entirely to building with Arduino to try [to] help the kids get a handle on relationship between a sketch and the physical device and to give them some time making something work,” Pamela reports. “They are fascinated by the device itself and we have spent a fair amount of time looking at the components and talking about what they do...The kids respond positively to hands-on projects and become quite animated if they are allowed to wonder out loud.”

The kids respond positively to hands-on projects and become quite animated if they are allowed to wonder out loud.

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While they used the pre-soldered version of the kit, Pamela still feels that the kids had a great hands-on learning experience—drilling intake holes in the plastic mounting case was naturally the most exciting part! More importantly, the project has sparked interest in microelectronics and monitoring at the school.

The students are learning about the end result—the data—through presentations on air, and why the Safecast initiative is important and meaningful. They explored incomplete combustion through the lego curriculum from MIT/Edgerton Center, for example, and completed the online PBS curriculum Understanding Air. All of her students are concerned about pollution, and actively interested in making sure that all kids breathe clean air.

@newton_street students are concerned about pollution and interested in making sure that all kids breathe clean air.

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Because monitoring data in the form a number typically doesn’t provide context or meaning for most people, Pamela took the initiative to reach out to the experts at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Safety, who have agreed to help explain the data. Safecast is developing visualizations intended to make the data more accessible based on their radiation map.

The Power of Citizen Science

Tying lessons into citizen science projects aimed at understanding or improving the world has a powerful effect on students. It adds to learning projects by making them meaningful, Pamela says. “There is a reason to do the work and a chance to participate in the world of adults...When students work on a project that affects the world, where other people are counting on them to do a job and to do correctly, it is hard for them not to feel responsible. When they fulfill that responsibility, it is natural for them have a sense of ownership. I don’t think you can ask for much more in a learning situation.”

When students work on a project that affects the world, it is hard for them not to feel responsible.

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The hands-on activities are also dynamic, profoundly effective learning tools that bring abstract concepts to life by making them relevant. “When you can puzzle through a problem and get feedback from all your senses, you receive a big reward from your brain when you figure it out...It frees your mind to consider other approaches to the problem and to reach out to others to figure out what is going on and where you might have gone wrong,” she explains.

Creating a Buzz About Air

While isolated contributions to the Safecast project are valuable, Pamela would like to see a coordinated school monitoring campaign. Connecting to a nationwide effort would boost the sense of meaning the project holds for both students and teachers. Encouraging educators who haven’t participated in citizen science projects and who might not have science backgrounds is an important piece of the puzzle.

“I think that there is an opportunity to use map visuals to link to chat or to launch co-monitoring connections. I think people learn best when they are working on projects that matter to them. I think that goes for teachers as well. If you connect with teachers around their interest in the environment or social justice and support that interest with good material and visuals, you will find traction.”

If you connect with teachers around their interest in the environment or social justice you will find traction.

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Join the Safecast Team

Want to contribute? Classes and individuals of all ages and backgrounds can get in on the action. Consider purchasing a Safecast Air Quality Monitoring Station, or buying all of the same parts and assembling the device on your own. The parts list and instructions are available online.

Learning electronics and putting those skills to work to collect and share data on our environment is a great way to get involved in two of the most important endeavors of the 21st century—improving our lives through technology, and protecting our planet.

About the author 

Kate Dougherty

Kate Dougherty is a freelance writer specializing in stories about where science, technology, and the environment meet. Her work has been published by Earth Island Journal Online, Next City, the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, and other outlets. Prior to her freelance career, she was contracted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency libraries for six years.

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