Is the air in our school polluted? Students conduct their own research on air quality in Barcelona

Poor air quality has been a major public health issue in Spain for years. Last December, the EU’s top Court ruled against the country for the high air pollution levels in Madrid and Barcelona, deciding that these cities failed to protect the health of their citizens. But the future is not all bleak. In Barcelona, measures to boost sustainable mobility led to a 31% reduction in air pollution since 2015, and steps to further improve pollution levels continue to be implemented.

Given the importance of the issue, air pollution has become the central topic of MULTIPLIERS in Spain. Our local partner Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) is discussing the impacts of air pollution on health and teaching students how to use air quality monitoring devices in schools, among other tools, to understand how forecasts and decisions around air quality are made. In this article, we share the first steps of our journey and present how our learning materials will turn students into knowledge multipliers, raising awareness about air pollution in their communities and beyond.

The beginnings: Identifying organizations and people interested in the air pollution problem

At the start of the project, the MULTIPLIERS team at UAB worked on identifying both individuals and organizations in the Barcelona area interested in the topic of air pollution. As part of this process, people from different sectors, and with different backgrounds and specific interests, were contacted for the establishment of a core Open Science Community (OSC). Our first OSC members included two science research institutions, two teaching support and resource providers, and four lower secondary schools located in two cities of Barcelona’s metropolitan area (Sabadell and Terrassa).

Since then, we have worked with these and other new OSC stakeholders in the design of teaching and learning materials that will be implemented in the four secondary schools during this academic year (2022-23).

Identifying challenges faced by science research institutions

The second step was to approach scientists based in Barcelona and the surrounding area whose research topics relate to air pollution from different perspectives. For instance, our two OSC partners ISGlobal (Barcelona Institute for Global Health) and IAAC (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia) are devoted, respectively, to the study of the effects of air pollution on health and to the development of sensors to measure air pollution at a relatively low cost. We also contacted other institutions to invite them to become members of our OSC: ICTA-UAB (Institute of Environmental Science and Technology), who conducts an integrated system analysis of urban nature-based solutions, among other topics, and the BSC (Barcelona Supercomputing Center), where researchers develop air quality models as useful tools to obtain forecasts and assess the dynamics of regulated air pollutants.

Knowing institutions’ and research groups’ interests helped us to identify some challenges to be addressed in the students’ learning materials. Some important ideas around air pollution highlighted by the experts are, on the one hand, that solid particulate matter (PM) pollutants that are suspended in the air have important negative effects on human health (e.g. cardiovascular diseases, cognitive problems, etc) but more research is needed to find out their specific extent. On the other hand, because of the significant changes in pollutant levels depending on the place of the measurement, more data about NO2, PM concentration is needed to determine the actual levels of pollution in different cities and streets, and to allow forecasting and decision-making to tackle them.

Additionally, during this period we also identified some other educational challenges to consider, based on the literature in science education as well as on some previous experiences working with the topic in primary and secondary schools. In this sense, two relevant ideas are, firstly, that the study of air pollution phenomena in classrooms requires specific work on their scale because different particle sizes are involved. In fact, PM consists of pollutant particles with a size between 10-5 m and 10-7 m (mesoscale) and NO2 are pollutant particles with a size between 10-10 mand 10-9m (submicroscopic scale). Secondly, the use of the word “particle” needs to be clarified in the teaching and learning materials because it refers to both molecules and atoms (i.e. particles of NO2), small portions of a component (i.e. dust particles, PM), and also to subatomic particles (i.e. nucleons).

How can these challenges be addressed by schools?

Taking into consideration all identified ideas, we worked intensively with teachers of our OSC on the design of teaching and learning materials to be used as part of MULTIPLIERS. As a result of this process, a set of co-designed and modular classroom materials linked to the Spanish national curriculum have been developed and published on an open website (at the moment only available in Catalan).

The designed teaching and learning materials are divided into five modules: 1) problematization; 2) air pollution: the chemistry perspective; 3) research: air pollution in our schools; 4) the effects of pollution on human health: the biology perspective; and 5) how to think and communicate solutions to reduce air pollution. Each of these modules includes a range of activities through which students learn key concepts of science (i.e. the idea that all materials are made of small particles). At the same time, they are involved in key processes of science production (i.e. designing a scientific research question, developing models about the phenomena according to the collected data, etc).

Piloting an Open Schooling Learning Project

In October 2022, a first implementation activity was piloted in one of the secondary schools in Sabadell. Three groups of students, totalling around 60 participants aged between 13-14 years, were involved in different activities for four weeks. During this period, students had the opportunity to interact with young researchers from the UAB team who visited them twice. Specifically, in their first visit, the researchers helped students to define their scientific research questions to guide their following research. Some days later, students presented the main findings of their research to the same researchers and discussed their conclusions with them.

Next Steps

Based on the experience of this pilot (and thanks to the feedback received from teachers and students), some improvements have been made to the teaching and learning materials.

From January to March 2023, the other three schools will implement the teaching and learning materials corresponding to the Open Schooling Learning Project about air pollution. In sequence, the students of the four schools will be posed a challenge: to become MULTIPLIERS and share their knowledge about air pollution with their community, including other secondary schools, family and friends, and scientists and other professionals. Stay tuned to find out more!

Students as Agents of Social Change/MULTIPLIERS & OStogether Inspiration Session

What does the school of the future look like? The times when students were considered mere recipients of information are over. Still, schools haven’t fully transitioned yet into a model that strongly encourages student participation, agency and self-efficacy, preparing pupils to tackle real-world challenges. With a focus on science education and sustainability dilemmas, the MULTIPLIERS Horizon 2020 project is addressing that gap. Through its Open Science Communities in six EU countries, MULTIPLIERS is connecting school science to real life, empowering pupils to act as knowledge multipliers across society, and developing students’ scientific argumentation and critical thinking skills.

Join our first dissemination event, organised in partnership with the Open Schooling Together initiative, to:

  • learn more about our approach and meet our consortium partners;
  • be inspired by a key lecture with Prof. Shirley Simon, Institute of Education, University College London, on argumentation in science education; and
  • engage in an interactive session on practical Open Schooling tools and methods around key socio-scientific challenges!

Register for the webinar!

Date and time: 18 November 2022, 9:30 AM CET

Agenda:

9:30 – 10:00 Introduction to the MULTIPLIERS project: students as knowledge multipliers  
10:00 – 11:00 Key lecture: The role of argumentation in open-school science learning projects. Prof. Shirley Simon, Institute of Education, University College London  
11:00 – 13:00 Interactive session on practical Open Schooling methods and tools 3 breakout rooms on 6 socio-scientific issues: Forest use vs. forest protection & Biodiversity and ecosystem services; Vaccination & Anti-microbial resistance; and Air pollution & Water and sanitation  

What is Open Schooling? The MULTIPLIERS approach to build inclusive and long-lasting learning communities

Modern societies are facing a wide range of complex challenges, such as fighting climate change, protecting the environment, promoting healthy living and fighting pandemics such as COVID-19, among others. To successfully prepare for and address such challenges, citizens must actively engage in public dialogue on scientific issues and participate responsibly in science-informed decision making. Still, this is easier said than done. Trust in scientific findings is diminishing in Europe and other parts of the world, which is an acute challenge of our time.

MULTIPLIERS has the ambitious goal to counter this trend by addressing the problem at its base. Guided by the concept of Open Schooling, the project will trigger a process to transform schools across six countries into innovative and open collectors of new ideas, practices and scientific approaches to address societal and environmental challenges. It will also offer students a space to engage their families, local communities, decision makers and the media in open, inclusive, and inquiry-based learning on science issues that have an impact on citizens’ lives.

But what is exactly Open Schooling and how can it be implemented in practice? As many different understandings of the term exist, one of the first steps of the project since its kick-off in November 2021 was to agree on a common and operational definition among project partners. As a result, the University of Cyprus and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona compiled the MULTIPLIERS “Report on Identified Good Practices and Needs Analysis”, which explores the definition of Open Schooling in detail.

“Open schooling initiates in the classroom but exceeds the school borders when students engage the local community in science practices, taking on the role of ‘knowledge multipliers’ to confront societal challenges”

Irene Drymiotou, Learning in Science Group of the University of Cyprus

In the Q&A below, you can find more about our Open Schooling approach, along with a short history of the term in Europe. For more information, explore the report here.

What is Open Schooling? And what is MULTIPLIERS’ approach to the concept?

In MULTIPLIERS, we propose an approach to Open Schooling that combines three main objectives – community impact, pedagogical impact, and scientific impact – while also explicitly emphasising important societal values.

We see Open Schooling as an educational perspective in which schools become open to society by bidirectionally collaborating with different institutions with the aim to:

  • Improve community well-being by raising awareness and co-creating solutions to both personal and socially relevant problems that have a direct impact at a local level.
  • Enrich the curricula and pedagogical repertoire of schools, by sharing different views and expertise from both educational and non-educational agents and institutions with the aim to promote students’ meaningful learning and competence development.
  • Give epistemic authority to all agents from within and outside the school, specifically to the students and their families, by engaging them in sustained inquiry, knowledge creation, creative action, and dissemination on issues of relevance to the local community and beyond.

To do so, projects and initiatives on Open Schooling such as MULTIPLIERS take advantage of the knowledge, practices, visions, attitudes, resources, and values of all involved agents, empowering them to collectively transform society from a reflective and critical standpoint that focuses on sustainability, equity, social justice, and inclusion.

How did the concept of Open Schooling come about in European Science Education?

To analyse the appearance of the Open Schooling concept in the EU, specifically in Science Education, one has to undertake a journey through the different EU reports and work programmes and their evolution from an STS (Science, Technology and Society) view within the Science in Society frameworks to the recent views of Science with and for Society. These latter frameworks are increasingly permeated with democratic and ethical concerns on citizens’ participation in Science identified through the Responsible Research and Innovation approach and culminating in a particular version regarding science education.

As such, Open Schooling emerges as a new term first in the report Science Education for Responsible Citizenship and in EU’s Work Programme 2016-2017 and continues to be a priority in the Work Programme 2018-2020. However, despite the term not being explicitly there, we can identify the Open Schooling idea already in the Work Programme 2014-2015.

The EU WPs from 2016 to 2020 followed up on the report Science Education for Responsible Citizenship to explicitly promote the concept of Open Schooling in their strategy of Science with and for Society, which revolves around the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and its pillar on Science Education.

How will the Open Schooling approach be implemented within MULTIPLIERS?

Open-school science learning projects will be developed collaboratively in our so-called Open Science Communities (OSCs). Science professionals will be actively involved in bringing real-life case studies to students regarding contemporary challenges and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including nature conservation, clean water and air, climate change, waste, energy, food, and public health.

Rather than seeking a single correct answer, students will interpret and represent the problem, collect information and evidence, identify possible solutions, evaluate options, and present conclusions supported with arguments. They will recognise that there is often no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision, and a constructive approach involves weighing each option against different needs and demands. Students will work with researchers gathering and analysing data, thereby developing a better understanding of the initial problem/case and acquiring familiarity with science practices and scientific research processes.

Ultimately, having gained first-hand experiences and inquiry skills in an authentic context, students will become knowledge multipliers; they will present, share, and deepen their knowledge and experiences in activities by actively involving their families and the wider community, firstly through dedicated local events (including open school/local action days or citizen science activities), and then through designing and exploiting science communication media (e.g., exhibitions, social media channels, and video clips).

All OSC partners will be jointly committed to teaching and learning processes in formal, non-formal, and informal settings to ensure relevant, meaningful, and sustainable engagement with science and associated ethical and societal priorities. Students will learn in the real world, with authentic problems fostering individual reflection and empowerment. Science experts, families, and local communities will be involved as part of sustainable learning communities.

Enabling the enablers – when pupils become knowledge MULTIPLIERS

“Base decision on facts, not on beliefs” – Kick-off Meeting of MULTIPLIERS project

by Gesche Schifferdecker and Rosa Castañeda

In schools, science is often presented in an abstract way and without a context – but if we want to get young people interested, topics need to be relevant to their everyday life. This is the idea behind the H2020 project MULTIPLIERS – short for MULTIplayers Partnerships to ensure meaningful engagement wIth ScieEnce and ReSearch. In the project, scientists will bring real-life cases to students (from elementary to secondary schools) to look at specific “dilemma situations” from various perspectives.

These dilemma situations are explored in six different themes. The German theme is very up to date – it will explore the topic of “Pro–Con Vaccination” and is managed by MULTIPLIERS project coordinator University of Bonn. The University of Cyprus will focus on “Anti-microbial Resistance”, while the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona is investigating the theme “Air Pollution”. IREN SpA, an Italian company providing public services like energy, water, and heating, will handle the topic of “Energy Efficiency”.

MULTIPLIERS also tackles forest-related topics. Umeå University and the European Forest Institute (EFI) are going to explore the dilemma of “Forest Use versus Forest Protection”. This topic is quite controversially discussed in Sweden and beyond. The debate is – like the ones around vaccination or air pollution – more emotional than based on evidence and thorough analysis.

To understand the controversy, students have to be enabled to both collect knowledge and find the pain points by asking critical questions, and consider potential trade-offs. A very good environment to discuss the “Forest Use versus Forest Protection” dilemma is a marteloscope, an “outdoor forest classroom”, where all trees are mapped and measured to consider both the ecological and the economic value of each tree. In the framework of MULTIPLIERS, EFI plans to establish a marteloscope in Sweden, and potentially also in Slovenia, where MULTIPLIERS’ sixth theme is centered. The University of Ljubljana will engage with students there to critically analyse the discussions around “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”.

However, these themes are not set in stone – at a later stage of the project, other partners might also pick up other themes they consider relevant for the students, or explore themes investigated by others within their own community. For instance, the University of Bonn is interested in working on the topic of forest use versus forest protection together with local partners in the forest surrounding the city.

Kids exploring science (photo by patricialacolla via Pixabay)

By addressing current and future societal and environmental challenges and taking students to authentic workplaces like the forest or a medical lab, MULTIPLIERS aims to awaken students’ interest in science. Discussions with researchers on all themes will be based on scientific knowledge, but they should also consider potential ethical and societal implications of decision-making. To introduce different perspectives on the issues to the students, MULTIPLIERS is aiming at building so-called “Open Science Communities” (OSCs). Each OSC will involve all of the diverse stakeholders from education, research, enterprises, civil society, and policy, to innovatively engage different societal actors in the science learning process. During the project implementation and after its completion, the consortium will support the creation of new OSCs in the partner countries, as well as in other EU countries.

One of the main project objectives is to develop analytical and critical thinking competences for and with the students, to ultimately make them knowledge MULTIPLIERS. After engaging with the OSCs, in a second step, families and wider communities will be involved in problem-solving processes, which are called open-school science learning. The students will share and discuss what they have learned with their peers, families and beyond. To approach broader audiences and engage with students from all over Europe, students involved in MULTIPLIERS will post stories on the project’s social media channels, supported by EFI’s Communication experts. The idea is to encourage the students to prepare their own communication outputs, in a way that allows them to experience and learn from the process of communicating science while also creating ownership of the content.

MULTIPLIERS partners

The project Kick-off meeting took place virtually on November 18-19, with the participation of the partners and project advisors. One of the highlights was a discussion on how to develop a research methodology that will allow an analysis of the needs of all the different countries, the enlargement of open science networks and the sustainability of the project. The coordinations have just begun, soon we will be sharing more news on the exciting MULTIPLIERS project!