In 2012, the Newtown Creek Alliance, in partnership with HabitatMap, received an Environmental Justice Community Impact Grant from the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation to develop and teach a course on air quality monitoring at Queens Vocational & Technical High School (QVT), located in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City. The primary goals of the program were to: (1) equip students with the skills, knowledge, and tools to record, interpret, and communicate air quality information; (2) furnish students with hands-on learning experiences that encourage them to engage with their environment, participate in community life, and understand of why science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are important in the context of solving real world problems; and (3) provide meaningful and accessible air quality information to the public and policy makers that would lead to more informed decision making and improved air quality.
The 26 QVT students who participated in the AirCasting program during the spring of 2013:
- • Built their own air monitors with instruction from a mechanical engineering professor from the New York City College of Technology and an electrical engineering professor from Manhattan College;
- • Toured the neighborhood around their school with a historian from the Newtown Creek Alliance;
- • Learned the basics of air quality from the Senior Vice President of Sonoma Technology;
- • Developed and executed their own air quality monitoring plans using the AirCasting platform; and
- • Presented their work and findings to their peers, members of the Newtown Creek Alliance, and staff from the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation.
The students collected air quality measurements using AirCasting. AirCasting is an open source platform for citizen science air quality monitoring that provides an end-to end solution for collecting, displaying, and sharing local air quality measurements. The AirCasting Android app records, maps, and graphs the measurements from AirCasting compatible, Bluetooth enabled sensing instruments and sends this data to AirCasting.org to be displayed, shared, and crowdsourced.
The students built their own air quality monitors using parts that are widely available from online web vendors and used a 3D printer to create enclosures to house and protect the electronics assembly. The students recorded thousands of particulate matter, temperature, relative humidity, and sound level measurements in the vicinity of their school and dozens of observations related to air pollution hot spots and air pollution incidences, e.g. idling vehicles, visible smokestack emissions, black exhaust from diesel trucks. Their aggregated measurements are available on the AirCasting “CrowdMap” and their individual measurements are available on the AirCasting “Sessions” map.
Analyzing the CrowdMap, the generally higher measurements recorded west of the school confirm common sense ideas regarding where particulate matter concentrations would be higher, i.e. near the Long Island Expwy, the Queens entrance to the Midtown Tunnel, the Dutch Kills industrial corridor, and the Sunnyside Railyards. However, it should be noted that the accuracy of the students’ measurements were negatively impacted by the failure to develop an enclosure that could fully eliminate light interference. The sensor we used to measure particles, the Shinyei PPD42NS, is an optical particle counter. This class of sensors is very susceptible to light interference, especially from sunlight. In an effort to shield the sensors from light interference the students modified their 3D printed enclosures using black construction paper. This improved the quality of the readings but did not eliminate light interference entirely.
By teaching Queens Vocational & Technical High School students how to build air monitors, understand air quality in the local context, and use the AirCasting platform to record, map, and share their findings, the AirCasting program was a success for both the students, the partnering organizations, the funders, and the Newtown Creek community.
AirCasting QVT Personnel
Michael Heimbinder – Course Instructor: Air Quality, Curriculum Development, Program Manager
Michael is Chair of the Newtown Creek Alliance and Executive Director of HabitatMap, a Brooklyn based non-profit that builds web tools to support grassroots environmental organizing.
Dr. Iem Heng – Course Instructor: Computer/Electrical Engineering
Iem is Assistant Professor of Electrical/Computer Engineering at Manhattan College. Prior to Manhattan College, he was Co-Director of the Mechatronics Technology Center at the NYC College of Technology.
Dr. Andy Zhang – Course Instructor: Mechanical Engineering
Andy is Program Director of the Mechatronics Technology Center at City Tech, a center for promoting hands-on multidisciplinary engineering technology education for college and high school students.
Raymond Yap – Teaching Assistant: Computer/Electrical Engineering
Raymond is a graduate computer engineering student at Manhattan College. Prior to Manhattan College, he was a Research Technician for the Research Foundation of CUNY at the New York City College of Technology.
Tim Dye – Guest Lecturer
Tim is a Senior Vice President of Meteorological and Air Quality Operations and Measurements at Sonoma Technology, Inc., an environmental consulting firm.
Mitch Waxman – Tour Guide
Mitch is the Newtown Creek Alliance Historian. He lives in Astoria and blogs at newtownpentacle.com.
Nicole Levy – Videographer
Nicole is a New York based video editor and multi media producer.
Brooke Singer – Curriculum Specialist
Brooke is a Brooklyn-based artist and professor of new media at SUNY Purchase College.