Big Sky High Air Quality

Big Sky High School seniors Lauren Krueger, left, and Ashley Jones work on their presentation on air quality data they collected. Dave Jones, Big Sky High School science teacher, got a $5,000 grant through the Society for Science & the Public Grants to purchase monitors that students used to survey and collect air quality data at home and other living spaces.

Missoula may be a beautiful city, but it has one of the worst air quality ratings in the country.

Most Missoulians are well aware that smoke in the summer combined with inversions lead to a high number of pollutants. However, indoor air quality is just as important to keep in mind. Students at Big Sky High School have become keenly aware of this as they’ve tracked indoor air conditions throughout the year.

Grayson Hall and Everett Freds, both juniors at Big Sky, are tracking particulate matter (or dust) in the air at Big Sky and analyzing how the levels change during passing periods.

The two placed a monitor that measures particulate matter behind a trash can in the hall to collect data continuously during the day. The monitor plots the data on a graph the students use to check their hypotheses and make conclusions.

Hall pointed to the chart on their computer. The highest spikes occurred before the morning bell, at the beginning and end of lunch period and the end of the day, in addition to passing periods.

“We think this spike is the janitors,” Hall said, tracing a spike late at night long after students have cleared the building.

Freds and Hall said the data they’ve collected thus far backs up their hypothesis that human traffic stirs up particulate matter. They said the monitor they used tracks both small and large particulates which have different implications for humans.

“The smaller it is, the more harmful it is because you breathe them in, it goes into your bloodstream and it can get into your tissue,” Freds said.

“The large ones usually don’t go into your body, but they can irritate your eyes,” Hall added.

Hall and Freds are two of about 60 Big Sky students who designed experiments measuring different indoor air conditions. In May, the students and their teacher, Dave Jones, will present their findings at an air quality symposium at the University of Montana. 

“Kids in Missoula have even more of a reason to look at air quality,” Jones said. “It’s kind of an issue in Montana with particles and inversions here in the winter.”

Jones said the goal of the project is to get students thinking about how they can quantify air quality.

Jones was recently awarded a $5,000 grant through the Society for Science & the Public Grants to purchase monitors that can measure volatile organic compounds, another type of indoor pollutant commonly found in things like varnishes, paint and house cleaners. Jones said students can begin tracking volatile organic compounds next year when the monitors arrive.

Another group of students tracked levels of radon, a gas that forms in rock layers in the ground and can seep into the cracks in the basement foundation of homes. Humans can't see, taste or smell radon, but it has dire effects on human health, including an increased risk of lung cancer. 

The students placed monitors in their homes and the homes of relatives and found that radon levels varied throughout Missoula.

The group’s findings didn’t support their original hypothesis, which was that radon levels would be higher in more rural neighborhoods. Instead, it found that levels varied widely for homes they measured in Big Flat, Linda Vista, 44 Ranch, Ranch Club and Orchard Homes.

Emily Hale and Madison Edwards, two students in the group, said high levels of radon in their homes and relatives’ homes alarmed them since radon is linked to cancer. 

Hale said she didn’t know much about air quality before the project. Now, she said she'll think more about radon levels and even consider them down the road when she’s looking at purchasing a property.

In May, the students will present their findings at the environmental symposium at UM, along with students from other schools in the greater Missoula area.

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