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Fresh Voices on Stale Air

Feb. 2, 2005 – Air pollution is a Salt Lake Valley problem without an easy solution. So University of Utah materials engineer Dave Richerson is tapping an unusual source for ideas to clean up our air: He’s going into classrooms to ask fifth, sixth and eighth graders how they would tackle the problem.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Dianne Nielson, director of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, are scheduled to honor students and teachers involved in the program during a news conference and reception at 4 p.m. this Saturday Feb. 5 at the Salt Lake City Public Library. The news conference will be on the fourth floor and the reception in the bottom-floor Children’s Gallery.

The program is named the UTES Junior Partners, and students involved in it “have really taken ownership of the importance of energy conservation and air quality,” says Richerson, an adjunct associate professor of materials science and engineering.

The Salt Lake Valley Airshed project (also known as the Urban Trace-gas Emissions Studies, or UTES) began in 2002 with a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation to the University of Utah. Initiated by a diverse group of faculty, the project is concerned with collecting data about air pollutants, using computers to simulate how various factors influence air quality in the Salt Lake Valley and improving future air quality by involving citizens and building community support.

Getting school kids involved in the quest for clean air is the goal of the UTES Junior Partners program, coordinated by Richerson. The school kids are seen as important partners in the long-term solution to our clean air problem. “Perhaps some of the ideas offered by the students will broaden the knowledge of the decision makers,” says Richerson. “Someday the children will grow up to be the decision makers.”

During the current school year, six teachers in Salt Lake County have incorporated lessons on clean air – designed by Richerson – into their curriculum. The Junior Partners program takes a hands-on approach to teaching kids about energy and clean air. The first teaching module is called “Energy, Air and Me,” and the aim is to demonstrate how the choices we make as individuals affect the air we all breathe. Students are encouraged to work together in groups, considering the effects of their own actions.

“The class activities focus on the amount of pollution released when a ton of coal is burned to produce electricity, a gallon of gasoline is used in a car or a unit of natural gas is burned to heat a home,” Richerson explains. “The students do calculations and construct graphs to try and understand which factors, such as house or car size, have the largest influence on energy use and pollution emissions.”

From the Mouths of Babes

Last October, students from the UTES Junior Partners program became advocates, teaching about air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley. Students from Patti Tanner’s sixth-grade class at Morningside Elementary constructed a booth for an Environmental Health Fair at the Salt Lake City Public Library. They handed out clean air buttons and brochures that they created. Later, the class wrote to the Granite school board, asking the district to replace its diesel school buses with cleaner, natural gas buses.

Several classes involved in the UTES Junior Partners program collaborated this winter to create a “Choose Clean Air” art exhibit, on display at the Salt Lake City Public Library until Feb. 15. Paintings, drawings, collages and posters for the exhibit came from Pam Krieps’ fifth grade class at Whittier Elementary, Tanner’s sixth-grade class, Chris Gesteland’s sixth-grade class at Highland Park Elementary and Laurel Steele’s eighth-grade class at Bryant Middle School.

Later this spring, the first batch of student recommendations for improving Salt Lake Valley air quality will be released. Richerson points out that “decision makers are not always aware of all the issues or possible solutions.” The kids will have a fresh take on air pollution, and just might have some creative, out-of-the-box solutions.

The UTES Junior Partners project is being conducted on a pilot basis during the 2004-2005 school year. This spring, a workshop will be offered for teachers who are interested in incorporating the air pollution teaching modules into their classrooms next year. In the coming years, Richerson hopes to expand the program and involve more local teachers and eventually reach beyond Utah. He says, “Soon we hope to have the teaching modules released on the Internet so they can be accessed by teachers and students anywhere.”

Press release prepared by Jill Johnston West