Pilot an Air Quality Scholars program

The Sustainability Office created a suite of initiatives this past year aimed at one of our valley’s most significant problems: air pollution.

The Sustainability Education team developed several pathways to enhance interdisciplinary air quality education at the University of Utah. Those pathways include efforts to identify and designate air quality courses, create an online air quality course and pilot an Air Quality Scholars program. The senior vice president’s office provided $9,000 toward the efforts.

“Bringing an interdisciplinary lens to complex air quality issues allows students to engage with faculty in relevant and authentic problem solving,” said Adrienne Cachelin, director of Sustainability Education. “This is an invaluable educational opportunity and one that helps us better understand the systemic underpinnings of disparities in health.”

Identify and designate air quality courses across campus

The Sustainability Education team identified 42 courses from 12 departments that include air quality content. These courses will be listed as electives for the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability and will be used to build an air quality track for a new undergraduate sustainability certificate, which will launch in 2021.

Create an interdisciplinary online course

Collecting video and content from “The Air We Breathe: A Multidisciplinary Approach on Air Quality” symposium, held in October 2019, the Sustainability Education team developed a new online course that allows students to explore and integrate a variety of approaches to air quality. Students will learn about local initiatives through the lenses of geography, policy, and health, as well as explore air quality as an environmental justice issue.

Pilot an Air Quality Scholars program

The Air Quality Scholars program was an innovative approach to bring together students from diverse disciplines to develop solutions for local air quality concerns. Three graduate and five undergraduate students received scholarships and participated in a year-long cohort led by instructors Emerson Andrews, manager of the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, and Meghan Dovick, associate instructor for the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

“The scholars from this year-long program were able to engage with students from various disciplines, campus researchers and staff, and community air quality leaders,” Dovick said. “This engagement inspired the scholars to create and implement projects centered around improving air quality for our campus and community. This process demonstrates how collaborative efforts result in meaningful projects.”

The Air Quality Scholars program took a comprehensive approach to learning about local air quality issues and applying that knowledge to real-world projects. In addition to regular group meetings with the instructors, all scholars were required to attend “The Air We Breathe” symposium. Over the course of the year, the students then developed group projects related to research and engagement with air pollution. The projects included:

  • Analyzing risk perceptions
    • The Air Quality Data Analysis Project with Tabitha Benney, assistant professor in Political Science, investigated Utahns understanding of health risks associated with long-term and short-term air quality issues. Three students performed data analysis on 1,160 responses to the Utah Air Quality Risk and Behavioral Action Survey to determine the impacts of socioeconomic status on the perception of the health risks of air pollution. Scholars wrote a joint research paper on their analysis and findings, which they will submit to an undergraduate journal.
  • Engaging learners
    • In collaboration with the Utah Museum of Fine Art’s planned “Air” exhibition, organized by senior curator Whitney Tassie, Air Quality Scholars developed three apps that will engage the community in healthy behaviors. The first app is a survey about personal habits and air quality, and the second app is a pledge to adapt personal habits to improve air quality. The final app examines the correlation between air quality and school absences. These apps will be on hand at the exhibit and the Marriott Library.
  • Alerting the campus community
    • A new email delivery system will inform students, faculty, and staff about air quality status and how to respond. The Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center plan to host a webpage where people can sign up for the emails. Full implementation of the system is scheduled for fall 2020