Monitoring Beijing’s Air: Citizen Scientists in China

I want to continue my discussion of the environment in this post. I read with interest another editorial by the New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled The Green Leap Forward which again focused the pollution of China’s environment. He started his article with a little story about a friend of his to does his own air quality testing by opening the window and seeing how far he see into the distance. On a good day he can see a few blocks away. On a bad day he can’t see the next building.

For many years a group of us were involved with an international project, The Global Thinking Project which linked together schools around the world to study the environment locally, and use the Internet to share data and solve problems. From 1989 – 2001 students from the U.S, Russia, Australia, Czech Republic, Spain, England, Botswana, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries worked on the project. One of the projects would have helped Friedman’s friend to test the quality of the air in Beijing. It was Project Ozone, and in the project students monitored the air outside their homes or schools using a very nifty device called the Ecobadge. Using a paper that was chemically sensitive to the ozone molecule, the Ecobadge, shown here, was used to measure the amount of ground level ozone in the air. Like litmus paper, it changed color in the presence of ozone molecules, and the color turned darker with higher levels of ozone.

The ecobadge shown here is very cool. You can clip it to your shirt or blouse, and walk around monitoring the air. It works like this. You slide a test card into the Ecobadge. The top part of card (the purple part) is used for a 1-hour test; the bottom (brown) for an 8-hour test. By matching the color change on the test card with the color wheels shown, the level of ground level ozone can be determined in parts per million. Its very simple to use, and fairly accurate. You can also purchase a digital reader, the Zikua, which will provide more accurate readings.

We also worked with graduate science teachers and TEEMS science teacher interns at Georgia State University to study air pollution in Atlanta and surrounding communities during the summer. Atlanta, like many American cities has a ground level ozone problem. Moderate to high levels of ozone can be dangerous to people who are active outdoor types and especially children, and thus we worked with educators to help them not only learn how to do scientific inquiry into the nature of ground level ozone, but to help work with their own students to understand the issue. In the Friedman article, he mentions than the Chinese government reduced the number of automobiles being used in Beijing during a conference which involved more than 40 African leaders to increase the quality of the air. Apparently it had a positive effect. A similar thing happened in Atlanta in 1996 during the Atlanta Summer Olympics. The Olympic organizers campaigned to reduce the number of people who would drive cars into the city during the Olympics and to carry this out provided convenient busing from the perimeter into the Olympic venues. Later that year, local hospitals reported that the number of people who visited emergency rooms complaining of respiratory ailments was less than any period up until the Olympics. Apparently, fewer cars meant cleaner air.

According to Friedman, China is seriously interested in improving the quality of air, water and soil in the country, but he urges that the government allow greater freedom in reporting, and greater involved of citizens. One of the outcomes of the work of the Global Thinking Project was not only teaching teachers and students how use inquiry to study the environment, but also to involve them as citizens in the solution to these problems. We used the term citizen scientist to describe students who used scientific knowledge to help solve science related social issues. It has application in China.

Science education can contribute to the solution of science-related social issues, such as outline by Friedman in China, and as described in the Global Thinking Project. Just as students in the GTP were active science learners, using the local environment as their research cite, and Internet as a tool to communicate their results as well as collaborate with others on mutual problems. The same can be done in China. The technological growth in China’s cities has been phenomenal, but industrial growth has put China’s environment at risk. Involving citizens at all levels can contribute to solving societies problems.

Gary Short, the inventor of the Ecobadge has provided a very interesting monitoring tool that you might want to check out at his website at Vistanomics (home of the Ecobadge).

If you are a teacher you might want to check out Project Ozone, and other environmental topics.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.