Simple Device Allows Students to Measure Air Pollution

January 24, 1996

By Monica Friedlander

It is highly unlikely that many school children in the small newly-independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe have heard much about Berkeley Lab. Yet in schools throughout Slovenia, as well as in formerly-Soviet Estonia, students are using a simple technique conceived here by a Berkeley Lab scientist and an Illinois high school teacher to measure air pollution. The low-tech equipment, which yields results comparable to those obtained by standard scientific instruments, consists of a piece of tissue paper, a vacuum cleaner, two disposable cups, a plastic bag, and a photographic print.

With the help of these gadgets, students, teachers, and scientists on two continents are working together as part of the International Air Pollution Project, run by the Lab's Center for Science and Engineering Education (CSEE), to measure the amount of black carbon--or soot--in the atmosphere. By participating in this program, the students and teachers hope to learn first-hand about scientific research methodology, become familiar with the work and cultures of people in other countries, and raise general consciousness about worldwide environmental problems.

"It's very exciting to have an educational project that can utilize lab technology throughout the world," says project coordinator Eileen Engel of CSEE. "We're hoping this is just the beginning."

The project falls under the umbrella of a larger Berkeley Lab program entitled Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) in Science. Sponsored by the Human Genome Field Operations Office, the project is designed to highlight research activities at the Lab while stimulating discussion about the consequences of scientific research. Participants in the project consider questions such as how to best use available resources and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of scientific research and discovery.

Through the International Air Pollution Project, teachers guide students through environmental observations about air pollution and integrate sample collection and computer work into classroom activities. Students exchange the results of their experiments over the Internet and through e-mail and faxes, thereby making the data available for further research and educational activities. While the project is only now beginning to be piloted in a few U.S. classrooms, in Slovenia it is part of the official national curriculum.

The project grew out of an idea developed in 1989 by Berkeley Lab physicist Tony Hansen and high-school teacher Dean Rockwell, a participant in the DOE Teacher Research Associate Program. Hansen had developed an instrument for measuring airborne carbon particles known as soot, which are a major atmospheric pollutant. Soot particles are released into the air from the burning of fuel in cars, homes and industry. Diesel engines are a major source of this type of pollution, which can have serious health and environmental consequences.

After working together, Rockwell and Hansen decided to devise a method for measuring atmospheric soot based on the principles developed by Hansen, but which could be used by students--that is, one that would be both inexpensive and easy to use and understand.

"The important thing to show is that science is not hidden in a box," Hansen says. "A lot of science today is mediated by a piece of apparatus that relies on sophisticated technology that no one understands. It's really important to convey to students that, deep down, science is not based on magic."

Hansen was particularly concerned about the alarming levels of air pollution--particularly soot--in parts of eastern and central Europe. In some of those countries, soot concentration can be more than 10 times higher than that on a smoggy day in Los Angeles. Monitoring the pollution is the first step towards alleviating the problem.

Hansen contacted Dr. Mirko Bizjak, a fellow scientist at the National Chemistry Institute of Slovenia, who immediately bought into the idea of involving school children in pollution monitoring experiments. Rockwell was subsequently invited by the Slovenian national science academy to travel to their country and demonstrate the ingenious air sampler to school teachers there. The idea caught on and spread to Estonia as well. Today, 60 schools in Slovenia and 12 in Estonia use classroom materials developed for all grade levels to receive and analyze data on air pollution using the simple technique invented at Berkeley.

"In Estonia," Hansen says, "this is the only air pollution measurement in the whole country."

CSEE would like to see the program expand both nationally and to other countries, thereby fostering further cooperation between American and other students around the world. To register or to find out more about the International Air Pollution Project, contact Eileen Engel at [email protected], or visit the project web site at For more information on the measuring equipment, contact Tony Hansen at [email protected].

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