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U honors students examine air quality, health and society in the state of Utah

Students (from left to right: Tyler Cain, Runzhi Dong, Isobel Lingenfelter, Christianna Johnson) from the "Air Quality, Health and Society" Honors Praxis Lab receive a tour of the Anadarko natural gas fields outside of Vernal, Utah during their fall 2014 field trip.

March 2, 2015— Students in the University of Utah’s Honors College are working towards real, implementable solutions for the hotly debated air quality problem in the state of Utah. A year-long honors Praxis Lab called “Air Quality, Health and Society” has afforded 10 students the opportunity to comprehensively study the problem and take matters into their own hands.

Each year, the Honors College offers three Praxis Labs. These labs are year-long, project-based courses that combine theory with action, and exist to engage students with the community and exercise leadership in a real-world setting.

Kevin Perry, chair of the U’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences and Stephen Trimble, a writer, photographer and conservationist, served as course instructors. Together, the pair spent the year teaching students about the science behind air quality, as well as exploring the societal, ethical and political aspects of the air quality issue.

During the first semester, business owners, government officials, environmental activists visited the class each week to provide different perspectives on air quality.

“Having guest lectures every week showed the students just how complicated the air quality issue in our state is,” said Perry.

“It was important to hear from as many stakeholders as possible in order to gain a better understanding of the problem and therefore be able to approach it with reasonable, potential solutions.”

During the second semester, students identified aspects of the air quality issue for which they ideated and implemented solutions to make a change in the local community. Together, the students created the following four projects:

  1. Drafting a letter for businesses to sign, stating that air pollution is not just an environmental or personal issue, but one which negatively affects businesses as well.
  2. Contacting local car dealerships to inquire whether or not they have knowledge of Tier 3 vehicles, which possess emission control technologies that reduce tailpipe and evaporative pollutions. In accordance with regulations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, all new vehicles will be Tier 3 starting in 2017. Students will encourage car dealerships to begin early marketing of Tier 3 vehicles and will provide educational materials to those who do not currently possess any.
  3. Partnering with Breathe Utah, an organization which “seeks real and practical solutions to Utah’s air quality problem” to create one to three short, educational videos for use in elementary and middle schools. The videos will focus on topics such as the adverse health impacts of wood burning and the importance of reducing one’s carbon footprint.
  4. Creating a short documentary about the Praxis Lab in order to promote the Honors College and Praxis Labs.

Isobel Lingenfelter, a member of the lab majoring in urban ecology, cites the lab’s focus on applying knowledge to a real problem in the community as the most beneficial skill she’s gained throughout the year-long course.

“Taking the knowledge from abstract concepts to real world application makes the learning process that much more important and meaningful,” Lingenfelter said.

For the first project, students created an ambitious list of diverse business contacts and each reached out to them, explaining the course and the letter’s purpose. Some signers include CenturyLink, Zion’s Bank, Overstock and Black Diamond.

The class will present the signed letters to a representative from the governor’s office at the 20th Annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium at the University of Utah on Friday, March 6 at 9:30 a.m. The symposium, “Air Quality: Health, Energy and Economics,” will examine the multifaceted problem of air pollution, with speakers across the academic spectrum joining together to approach the issue through an interdisciplinary lens.

The lab’s small class size and intimate setting allows for uninhibited brainstorming and a healthy balance between joking about the professors’ ages and serious contemplation about how to best move the lab’s projects forward.

Zachary Schofield, a member of the lab double majoring in environmental and sustainability studies and international studies, said he enjoyed the class for its flexible structure and objectives.

“In a traditional class, you absorb a lot material; take an exam and move on to the next thing. But with this, we’re able to set our own goals and accomplish them.”

Lingenfelter agreed. “A lot of little skills go into making a project a reality such as contacting folks, wringing out a practical time line, and setting your own goals an envisioning the outcomes you want instead of writing test dates down in a calendar.”

Looking forward, students in the lab are hopeful about applying the skills they’ve gained in the course to their everyday academic, professional and personal lives.

“Being able to envision outcomes and set goals to create those outcomes will be invaluable for the planning profession. Something that is commonly said in planning is the best plan in the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t actually apply it. The Praxis Lab demands this kind of follow through,” said Lingenfelter.


If your business would like to sign the lab’s letter to the governor, please contact Kevin Perry or Stephen Trimble.