Great science starts with great questions. Often kids can get lost in the sciences because they don’t see a reason for it. They don’t see how they can use it in “real life” and it becomes tedious and aimless. Once a child makes the connection between science and answering real questions that matter, it is not only empowering, it’s fun. The secret to engaging students in science is to make it relevant.
Eleven year old Hailey Parsons Martin is a fifth grader at William Penn Elementary in the Granite School District in Salt Lake City. She lives in a family that talks about science, a family that asks questions and seeks valid answers. Her mother is a psychologist and her father is an environmental engineer specializing in water quality. When it was time for their daughter to chose a science fair project, they showed interest. Together they explored the internet for “cool” science fair projects and found one on air quality testing. Hailey’s interest was piqued because she had been learning about the dangerous toxins released unnecessarily into the environment while cars idle.
Hailey’s parents encouraged her curiosity. They helped her find reliable news and information on the effects of air pollution. She learned about her local environment; how the valleys in Utah are surrounded by mountains and make “bowls” that trap not only the cold air, but all the pollution we create. She learned about the health effects of toxic air; such as asthma, lung and heart diseases, birth defects and cancer. She learned about different human activities, like transportation, buildings and businesses that create pollution, in particular, particulate matter (PM). PM is any solid or liquid substance that is suspended in the air and they vary in size. For instance, PM2.5 is two and a half microns in width; several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. PM2.5, while not visible to the human eye, poses one of the greatest risks to human health because it gets trapped deep in the lungs.
Hailey also has a personal, human connection to her inquisitiveness. She has a grandmother with lung complications due to asthma. It bothers her that her grandmother has to go to Saint George during January because the air is so bad in Salt Lake. She also noticed that kids were exposed to poisonous car exhaust every day at school. Hailey said, “it’s about safety.”
Now Hailey had a basic understanding of a real life problem and from there, she designed a question that could be answered by observation; “What’s in our Air?” Her hypothesis was that the amount of particle pollution in the air would be higher in areas of higher traffic. Her methodology was simple at appropriate for a scientist her age. She cut out cardboard milk containers into small squares and put a smear of Vaseline on each one to catch the particles floating by from various places around her home and community. She took multiple samples in each of six locations; her front yard, her bedroom, a sugarhouse apartment, a yard by a creek, her school parking lot and a local freeway overpass. After she collected her samples, she used a magnifying glass to count the visible specks. She then averaged the data from each location and graphed the results. Her hypothesis, that areas with more traffic would have more pollution was strongly supported by her data, with one surprise finding. Predictably, the freeway overpass had the most particle pollution, but surprisingly, her bedroom had more than her front yard. Perhaps another science project. As usual, answering questions opens up more questions.
Hailey said the most important thing she feels she has accomplished with her science fair project is that, “I feel like I’m showing my school that we have really bad pollution and people should stop idling their cars, especially in parking lots.” She feels like she is an important voice.
Hailey is interested in much more than just science, she takes acting classes and when asked about what she wants to study in the future, she responds with ideas for not only a major, but also minors. She is interested in acting, design, biology, zoology, writing and science. She thinks an air quality patrol and a clean air rally at her school would help create more awareness. In terms of future research and activism, in addition to more air quality investigation, she thinks the school lunch needs to be investigated.
As a reward for her exemplary work in the field of air quality research, Purple Air (http://www.purpleair.org/), a Utah air quality monitoring network, is donating a particle counting monitor to Hailey so she can take her research to the next level.