Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Undergraduates are working with high schoolers to create exciting ways for school students to investigate the air they breathe, for a national study looking at air quality in schools.
Gaming, hands-on experiments and air monitors to be built from scratch are all part of the toolkit that Engineering undergraduates at Massey University are creating to get students to take a closer look at the quality of the air in their schools.
The team at Massey’s He Wharekura Oranga – Healthy Schools, who are mentoring the undergraduates, hope that the school students’ findings will contribute to their research looking at classroom air quality across Aotearoa and how to improve it in order to reduce illness.
While the researchers at He Wharekura Oranga could simply go into schools and install monitors to remotely collect data for them, they thought it better to have students and teachers in the schools themselves doing the research.
“Our longer-term goal is to raise awareness of air quality and empower people to take action to improve it,” says Aruna Shekar, Innovator-in-Residence at Massey, who is running the project with the project initiator, senior lecturer Mikael Boulic, and engineering technician and senior tutor Chris Chitty.
Aruna, Mikael and Chris asked undergraduates interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education to create a unique way to make monitoring air quality relevant and engaging for school students.
With feedback from students at Albany Senior High School, the undergraduates are creating a toolkit with three core elements: a problem-solving game based in a virtual world, practical experiments that bring learnings from the game into real life, and electronic air monitors that students themselves have to assemble and use to collect data about their school’s air.
Mechatronics student Sean Rutherfurd says, “When I was at school, the really cheesy and obvious attempts to try and make STEM more fun, like Mathletics, definitely failed! That’s why it’s so important we work with students themselves, to make sure the activities actually are fun.”
The computer game familiarises players with the idea of experimentation and investigation, and also teaches them about what can affect air quality – such as climate change and pollution.
“I’ve really enjoyed trialling the game,” says Violet, 17, at Albany Senior High School. “The proactive parts are really fun; I like that you have to solve problems by changing things in another part of the game world.”
“This is a great idea,” adds Georgia, 17. “Last week I was helping my 14-year-old brother with his maths homework and the website for it was really boring! It would’ve been much cooler to have had the maths in a game like this one.”
Aruna says, “What’s really exciting is how the novel aspects of the virtual game appeal to students and they’re actually learning important concepts about air quality while interacting with the scenarios in the game – without even realising they are! Teachers also love the experiments because they align with the curriculum.”
Product Development Engineering student Michael Stewart has created simpler games and experiments for primary and intermediate school students, such as using Vaseline to gather dust for scrutinizing and investigating condensation (humidity made visible) using water and glass – all of which come with guides for teachers.
“Teachers want to ignite enquiry-thinking in students, as well as have more confidence in explaining the science behind phenomena,” he says.
Rashida Longley, Head of Science at Albany Senior High School, explains that the toolkit is particularly valuable because it enables students to choose which areas of interest to pursue, driving their own learning.
“It’s also great for the students to use technology that immediately applies to real life.” she says.
Once the students are ready to apply their newly gained knowledge and skills, they then have the challenge of assembling the air monitors.
The devices, called SKOMOBO (SKOol MOnitoring BOx), measure aspects such as humidity, dust and other airborne particles, carbon dioxide, and temperature. For primary and intermediate students, Michael has created a tailored pre-assembled hand-held version of SKOMOBO, dubbed ‘Little Bo’.
By recording and tracking the measurements over time, students will be able to see changes in air quality in response to different conditions, such as a change in season, construction work, or rush hour traffic. Once the potential causes have been identified, the students can then investigate how to solve them – enabling them to directly improve their own air.
The researchers at He Wharekura Oranga intend to roll out the final toolkit to schools across Aotearoa next year.
A Breath of Fresh Air is run by Massey University (Albany)'s He Wharekura Oranga team (co-led by Mikael Boulic, Robyn Phipps and Chris Cunningham) in partnership with NIWA, with support from BRANZ (SKOMOBO monitors) and the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.