Image: Air Quality word cloud created by 6th grade students at Sunny Wolf Charter School
DEQ Air Quality Monitoring Engagement Coordinator Hillarie Sales and Air Quality Coordinator Morgan Schafer have been working all year with a class of middle-schoolers at Sunny Wolf Charter School who have a great interest in science and learning more about air quality and hope to develop formal curriculum from this experience for other classrooms and the general public.
In 2021 DEQ and the U.S. Forest Service collaborated to create curriculum with a goal of expanding students’ knowledge about the importance of air quality. We worked with Sunny Wolf Charter School in Wolf Creek, Oregon, to include this new curriculum in their outdoor studies program. In 2022, DEQ’s air quality education team and the charter school was awarded a $10,000 Greening STEM grant to further develop this curriculum and incorporate hands-on experiences for middle school students to better understand air quality and its impact on ecosystems. The core team included Hannah Mesraty from USFS, Morgan Schafer and Hillarie Sales from DEQ, and Shawn Hardy from Sunny Wolf.
This curriculum is unique in a number of ways. It combines expertise from two different agencies that operate under two different perspectives and missions, but ultimately both promote the protection of air and the environment. There are three main aspects of this applied curriculum: air quality monitoring using both low-cost air quality monitors and biomonitors, such as lichen, career development, and data analysis. We also included creative visual design, outdoor classroom experiences, graphing and writing assignments.
The students walked away understanding the importance of clean air, what career opportunities look like, and ways they can participate in keeping our air clean.
Materials for this curriculum were developed by the Air Quality education team, existing information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , experts from our own agencies and others. Guest lecturers from DEQ, USFS, NASA and local tribal communities were invited to participate in the discourse via Zoom lectures. The grant was used to expand the curriculum across a full school year and to include hands-on experiences, such as a field trip to sample lichen with a Forest Service expert and to provide the low-cost sensors so students can sample the air in their own community and gather data. We worked with the school’s leadership team, got to know their campus and surrounding areas, assisted in the placement of the air monitors, and taught students about air quality, system ecology, and why clean air is essential.
Students were introduced to environmental careers as well, from working with local government, to research, forestry, and regulatory work. A few of our amazing guest speakers included:
- Aaron Fellows, DEQ – data analysis, data quality, and air quality monitoring from a regulatory perspective
- Margaret Miller, DEQ – what causes wildfires, what fuels wildfires, what is smoke, and how we can use fire as a tool
- Tiyana Blackeagle, Nez Perce Environmental Leader – Tiyana told the class stories of how her people connect with the land and taught them how to perpetuate a sensitive relationship with the land and the environment
The team is currently looking for funding opportunities as well as opportunities to share this curriculum more widely throughout Oregon.
We had the privilege to travel to Wolf Creek and work directly with the students to kick off the curriculum as well as take them on a wilderness trip. The school’s leadership team and the teachers that worked with us share our enthusiasm to expand this curriculum and keep it part of the STEM unit.
We again got to visit the school for the outdoor experience working on lichen collection, identification, and air quality connections to healthy ecosystems. Shawn Hardy is the lead teacher on this project, and he is highly enthusiastic and supportive of the program. The students walked away understanding the importance of clean air, what career opportunities look like, and ways they can participate in keeping our air clean. At least a third of the class are now inspired to take natural resource protection career paths!
The final product for this pilot program is a magazine that includes the students’ works from throughout the year. They created wilderness creatures, drew comic strips about air quality, took photos during fieldwork, wrote news articles, and interviewed air quality professionals. The class plans to continue their air quality work in the future by talking to their families about climate change, riding their bikes more, and pursuing natural science careers.
Other schools have contacted us about providing curriculum for their students. Our next goal with this curriculum is create an “off-the-shelf” presentation with associated activities for many age levels. This can be used by communities as well as teachers throughout Oregon for outdoor school and beyond. We also would like to create five additional units that do deeper dives into longitudinal data, biomonitoring, and ecosystem topics. The team is currently looking for funding opportunities as well as opportunities to share this curriculum more widely throughout Oregon.
We want to thank all our guest speakers as well as AQ leadership for this opportunity. It has emphasized the importance of our work here at DEQ and sharing that with the next generation of leaders.
By Hillarie Sales, air quality engagement coordinator and Morgan Schafer, air toxics coordinator