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PHS students present air quality findings

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia High School students Clay Campbell, left, and Grey Neal give a presentation on emissions from feedlot-contained cattle versus open-pasture cattle as part of a recent Air Quality InQuiry Science Symposium at Paonia High School. D

Since January, about 150 Delta County high school students have conducted studies in air quality. Paonia High School students of science teacher Jim Frazier carried out experiments to measure the emissions of different kinds of woods when burned, compare emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a full versus an empty pickup fuel tank, and measure heavy VOCs contained in every-day scented items, to mention a few.

The ongoing air quality study program is a partnership between CU-Boulder, the Western Slope Conservation Center, and local high schools. CU graduate and undergraduate students work closely with teams of high school students to design projects that investigate local air quality issues. Students come up with their own research ideas, create a plan, collect samples using air quality monitors developed by CU-Boulder, and analyze their own data. Each spring they present their findings to the public at the Air Quality InQuiry (AQ-IQ) Science Symposium.

Last week, PHS held its symposium. Jade Ellinberger and Triston Mautz compared air and water samples from a pond, an irrigation ditch, Crawford Reservoir and the North Fork of the Gunnison River to determine the correlation between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the amount of dissolved carbon in different bodies of water where they gathered their air samples.

If you are curious, "Standing water had more CO2 than running water," said Ellinberger, a sophomore who plans to study the aquatic sciences. Running water has fewer dissolved CO2 than standing water, she explained, because as it moves it's releasing it into the atmosphere, while standing water acts like a trap for CO2.

The WSCC sponsored the symposium. For 40 years the nonprofit has studied water quality in the North Fork area. "One of the primary programs of WSCC is youth education," said executive director Alex Johnson. WSCC seeks to support any opportunity to help engage local youth in science, environment and natural resources, and to help them to better understand their home and their watershed.

The program is built around lunchbox-sized containers, called "pods," which measure carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds levels. The pods were developed by the AirWaterGas research team of CU-Boulder mechanical engineering associate professor Michael Hannigah, with funding by the National Science Foundation. While air quality monitors can cost $50,000-$100,000, explained CU AQ-IQ program coordinator Katya Hafich, the pods, which use vehicle sensors that measure fuel pollutants, can be made for about $1,000.

As part of a larger project funded by the NSF, and in response to interest in oil and gas leases, CU sought to use the pods to measure air quality in the North Fork area in response to the possibility of increased oil and gas drilling in the area. In 2013 CU contacted Ben Graves, and environmental science teacher at Delta High School, who was then teaching at PHS. The school agreed to allow CU to install the pods on the school's rooftop, in exchange for using them for Graves' project-based learning classes.

As part of the program, students receive additional class time and are visited throughout the year by Hannigan and CU engineering students. It's been a win-win, said Graves. He calls the program "democratized science." It's not just the professors who get to do all the science, he said. "We can do science as well."

The program provides students an opportunity "to plug into what it's like to be a university student," said Graves. They experience university-level research and use tools that they would otherwise only have access to through a university. "And that's pretty sweet."

Since students are doing college-level work, they earn college science credits through the district's Advanced Placement program. Students also gain public speaking and presentation skills. In 2016, AQ-IQ students from Delta County gave a presentation based on their air quality research on e-cigarette emissions at the American Public Health Association conference in Denver.

Freshmen Alysia Olson and Jay Walker tested common household cleaning products for VOCs. Walker said that after the tests she threw her spray disinfectant away. Just performing the tests made them cough, and they had to open all the windows, they said. In researching the VOCs they found in the products, they learned that at least one of them "can cause neurotoxicity, respiratory problems and a long list of heath issues," said Walker.

Both plan to study science after high school. They would also like to continue their research to see whether the products they tested, taken from their own houses, are responsible for the rise in asthma cases, and what their effects are on animals.

Working with the pods was interesting, said Olson. She was amazed how such a small unit could measure so much. And they were so easy to operate, she said. To get to their data they opened the unit, removed a data card, and plugged it into their laptop.

Since air quality is a global issue, PHS junior Antonio Gonzalez and sophomore Harley Ewert examined vegetation's impact on atmospheric CO2 levels by comparing air samples from around Paonia to data from around the world including Los Angeles and the boreal Taiga forest of Siberia. They theorized that forested areas where a lot of photosynthesis occurs would have lower levels of CO2. They could have used samples taken from around the valley, they said, but decided there wouldn't be enough variation in the samples because it's a small area.

The caliber of work they are doing "is incredible," said Johnson. "Hopefully it means that this generation will continue to engage on a local level and continue to work within our communities to make an impact."

Delta High School will present their findings at an AQ-IQ symposium on May 23. The event is open to the public.

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