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Rural Students Research Air Toxics via Multi-State Program

One student's interest in studying air pollution has led to a research program involving more than 1,200 mostly rural students from 18 schools in three states.

The program, Air Toxics Under the Big Sky, is designed to "bring student-based scientific inquiry into the classroom, give students real-world experience on problems relevant to their communities, and encourage young people to seek further education and careers in environmental and biomedical sciences."

It started seven years ago with a Big Sky High School chemistry class, with support from University of Montana researchers, as a year-long science project to study indoor air quality in the homes of 16 students. The program now involves students in Montana, Idaho, and Alaska. Apart from schools in the Montana cities of Missoula and Butte, the majority of the schools involved are in remote or rural areas and include two Native tribal colleges.

The program provides mentoring opportunities for students to study components of air pollution. They measure those pollutants indoors and outdoors, how the pollutants vary seasonally and geographically, and the pollutants' potential effects on human health. Students also develop and conduct independent projects and share their findings at the end of the school year in a capstone-like experience, a symposium held at the University of Montana.

The program recently caught the attention of The Rural Educator, which featured the program in an article in its spring edition, "The Power of the Symposium: Impacts from Students' Perspectives." Researchers found the annual symposium to be a critical component of the program, and a valuable learning experience for students.

The effectiveness of the overall program previously has been documented, so the point of this study was to look at students' perceptions of the program relative to the culminating symposium. A total of 448 surveys were collected from 2006-07 through 2008-09, mostly from high school juniors.

Students were asked to describe the most important things they learned. The most frequent response—from nearly 30 percent of the former students—was "general awareness of air quality and particulate matter." Less than 1 percent said they "learned nothing."

The vast majority—85 percent—rated their overall experience at the University of Montana symposium as either "good" or "excellent," while only 2 percent said it was either "not so good" or "really bad."

Students also were asked whether the program changed their interest in science or in pursuing a science career. Thirty-six percent of students said they were more interested in science, and 24 percent said they were more interested in it as a career.

"Any reported career interest increases by these students suggest that the Air Toxics Under the Big Sky program, with its culminating symposium, is a powerful way to have an impact on those who already have a high level of science interest," according to the report.

Air Toxics Under the Big Sky is a different kind of program that seemed worth sharing, particularly because it's helping to increase rural students' interest in science. Exposing students to these kinds of opportunities is a first step toward engaging them.

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