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What do poetry and soy sauce have to do with air quality? | The Homepage

Updated: Jun 26

Air quality monitoring project aims to put advocacy tools in students’ hands

Teens sit at a table and a dark-skinned man with black hair and a long black beard wearing light-colored pants and shirt stands at a high desk with a laptop and projector.
From left: Addie Aguilar, Charlie White-Weidow, Moss Brinzer, Kenan Alic, Cosby Morgan-Smith and Abhishek Viswanathan gathered in the Three Rivers Village School art room. Photo by Juliet Martinez

By Juliet Martinez, managing editor

Surrounded by art supplies and a mural of a whale shark, a graduate student in computing talked with a handful of teens about poetry.

One of the students brought “Love in a Time of Climate Change,” by Chamoru poet Craig Santos Perez from the Pacific island of Guam. The student declined to read it out loud but said Mr. Viswanathan could. Part of it reads:

I don't love you as if you were rare earth metals,

conflict diamonds, or reserves of crude oil that cause

war. I love you as one loves the most vulnerable

species: urgently, between the habitat and its loss.

But this is not a poetry class. This spring, students at Three Rivers Village School in Hazelwood got a crash course in using data to tell stories that make a difference. A University of Pittsburgh graduate student, Abhishek Viswanathan is teaching the teens about environmental advocacy through citizen science and hands-on educational STEM activities.

How does poetry fit into a project about data-driven air quality advocacy? The idea is to help students use air quality data to make a difference through creativity.

Starting in April, Mr. Viswanathan met weekly with six high-school-age students and one staff member at the school. During the one-hour sessions, he taught them about and installed four air quality sensors and three air filters in their school. He showed them the equipment and got their input on where to place them. He introduced them to air quality concepts and showed them the different ways they can use data to tell stories.

The students gave the sensors names like Harvey and Jarvis. Harvey was stationed into the kitchen, Jarvis in the hallway.

On May 9, the students met for the fourth time and reviewed some of the data they had collected so far.

Moss Brinzer, age 16, noticed that when they cook in the kitchen, the air quality goes down. The soy sauce probably has volatile organic compounds, they said.

Mr. Viswanathan asked who knew what “volatile” means. There was silence, and then a student guessed “unpredictable.” He agreed, explaining that they easily change state from a gas to a liquid to a solid.

The following week, Mr. Viswanathan showed comparisons of the outdoor and indoor air quality. Students learned that the nearest Allegheny County Health Department air quality monitor is almost eight miles away. But much more local air quality data is available.

In January 2022, Mr. Viswanathan used grant funding to buy and install 15 PurpleAir brand outdoor air quality monitors at the homes of Hazelwood residents. Marketed as affordable air quality sensors, they cost $200-300, a high price point for many in the neighborhood.

Hazelwood is an environmental justice neighborhood. This means at least 20% of the people live below the poverty line and at least 30% of residents are people of color.

During the May 9 meeting, Mr. Viswanathan asked the students what they know about environmental justice. Their comments ranged from fear of the future to observations about how climate change has affected weather patterns and concern for animal welfare.

Mr. Viswanathan welcomed these ideas with a “yes and” approach. He showed videos that explained how polluters are often located in poorer areas as a result of race-based zoning, bad land use planning and extracting resources in ways that put low-income people at a disadvantage.

He introduced the students to Learn Data Advocacy, a University of Pittsburgh project. It offers ways users can interpret data as detectives, journalists and artists. While detectives may filter the raw data to remove background noise and bring the important details into focus, the journalist researches and writes about it. The artist creates visuals to tell the story.

A single outlying data point can be part of a factoid story, Mr. Viswanathan explained. A comparison story can help make sense of data comparing two categories. Personal stories highlight the human experiences behind the numbers.

The project ends on May 30 with the students producing a zine telling a story about indoor air quality. The teens were enthusiastic as they threw around ideas for it.

One suggested the narrator could be the drawing that Mx. Brinzer entered into the yearly school t-shirt contest. The drawing shows a “caticorn” — the school’s mascot, a cat-unicorn — in front of a blackboard.

Another said they could talk about Harvey, the air quality sensor in the kitchen, getting “mad” when people cook, especially about the soy sauce.

The students liked doing the science themelves and making sense of it.

“I liked the practical applications of all the stuff we were being taught,” Mx. Brinzer said.

They appreciated having access to the raw data instead of having to comb through someone else’s research to find out where the data came from. They could draw their own conclusions.

“I got to see all the graphs and stuff,” they said. “And it wasn’t just like anecdotal, like ‘Trust me, bro.’”

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