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!