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Citizen Science

Air Quality Science for All

A mining tradition that dates back to the early 20th century involved taking caged canaries into coal mines to help monitor air quality. Canaries are birds that are sensitive to carbon monoxide and other gases that are harmful to humans. If a canary succumbed to the mine’s air quality, it served as a visual warning for the miners to evacuate the area.

The CanAirIO citizen science project was developed to engage the public in monitoring local air quality using sensors. The term canario is Spanish for canary, and so the CanAirIO project’s name is derived from the historical reference associated with the saying “the canary in the coal mine” and the applications of canaries as indicators of air quality in working mines.

The CanAirIO project was developed in Bogotá, Colombia, from a collaboration between a software engineer (and cycling enthusiast) along with a local activist; both individuals had concerns about local air quality issues. The data collected from CanAirIO in Bogotá led to findings that emissions from dated, diesel-powered public transit buses were associated with negative air quality, roughly 10 times worse than air quality measurements in other areas of the city. Since the project’s launch, the CanAirIO Team has worked to share their accessible monitoring model globally to empower others to cultivate awareness and take action on issues related to local air quality (Figure 1).

  • Project goal: To measure air quality using low-cost sensors
  • Your task: Collect air quality data
  • Science discipline: Environmental Science

Regional air quality data can miss variations within local air quality, and CanAirIO hopes that their growing global network of monitors will be used to validate and complement existing sources of air quality figures. The CanAirIO sensor network will help improve the accuracy of air quality measurements at local levels.

The CanAirIO sensor takes a few hours to construct and the total cost for materials ranges from $50 to 100 USD (see Project Home and Project Link on SciStarter). The team has created and shared abundant print and visual resources to support students as they construct the sensor (see Project Resources, Sensor Video Overview, and Air Quality Sensor Tool Overeview). Learners who are interested in technology will shine as they help lead peers in the sensor’s construction. The CanAirIO experience serves as an excellent project-based learning opportunity for student-driven investigations and community science connections.

Materials you will need:

  • Air quality sensor (see Project Resources, Sensor Video Overview, and Air Quality Sensor Tool Overview)
  • A cell phone (or Wi-Fi) to use with the CanAirIO sensor

With the CanAirIO project, students will be able to generate local air quality reports and will also be able to see the data from others engaged in the work. Locally engaged, globally connected project engagement provides ample opportunity for learners to explore the exciting intersection of science and data.

The topic of air quality is relevant to students and can be introduced in a number of ways; in fact, there are a number of additional air quality citizen science projects with helpful resources to bring the topic into the classroom (see Additional Air Quality Citizen Science Opportunities). Life science teachers may also be interested in having students observe lichens on tree bark, as lichens serve as visual bioindicators of air quality. Instead of acquiring nutrients from the soil, lichens acquire water and nutrients from the atmosphere and are sensitive to air pollution. To build awareness of local air quality bioindicators, students can survey the coverage of lichens on tree bark surfaces. Students can monitor one location over time and/or compare lichen coverage of tree bark among multiple geographic locations. Upon further investigation of lichen, students will notice the diverse community of organisms that inhabit lichen, including as tardigrades (water bears). Organisms such as lichen and the tardigrades that often inhabit lichen can collectively serve as bioindicators of local air quality.

Additionally, connections between air quality and global health topics provide unlimited connections for exploration in the classroom. Citizen science projects such as CanAirIO can help drive authentic learner engagement in science and breathe new life into the curriculum as students become informed and empowered to take action on local issues.

Figure 1 Participants receive feedback and information on their soil microbes, including a petri dish image of the cultured sample.
Figure 1. Participants receive feedback and information on their soil microbes, including a petri dish image of the cultured sample.

CanAirO at a glance

When: Anytime

How: Students will construct and deploy air quality sensors that are designed to measure local air quality particulate matter.

Where: Global, anywhere on the planet

Time needed: Variable. A few hours are needed to construct the air quality sensor

Special equipment needed: Yes. Students will construct and deploy a local air quality sensor. (See ‘Project resources,’ ‘Sensor video overview,’ and ‘Air quality sensor tool overview.’)

Cost: The air quality sensor materials cost between $50 and $100 USD

Contact for more information: info@canair.io

Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom visit www.nsta.org/safety.


Helpful Project Links

Project home: https://canair.io/

Project link on SciStarter: https://scistarter.org/canairio-low-cost-air-quality-sensor

Additional Air Quality Citizen Science Opportunities:

Calendar: https://scistarter.org/calendar

Resources: https://scistarter.org/citizensciencemonth-resources

Tutorial: https://bit.ly/2Jnu5KG


This column is the result of a partnership between SciStarter and the National Science Teaching Association. For more information about SciStarter and other citizen science projects, please visit www.scistarter.org.

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