Student-Built Air Purifiers Tackle Wildfire Smoke and Covid-19: UC Davis Engages Students with Hands-On Citizen Science

Students at Rio Tierra Junior High School in Sacramento build a portable air cleaner using a box fan and high efficiency air filters.

Schools are facing many challenges this fall, including minimizing risks to students and staff from Covid-19 and wildfire smoke exposure. Air purifiers are one tool that can help.

Researchers from the UC Davis Energy and Efficiency Institute (EEI) partnered with science teachers at Rio Tierra Junior High School in Sacramento to teach a two-day lesson on air quality and build 30 portable air cleaners with approximately 150 8th grade students. The portable air cleaners will be distributed to every classroom on campus.

Knowledge to action

“It is really important to empower students and help them understand indoor and outdoor pollution sources, and how to measure and improve indoor air quality,” explained UC Davis researcher and project lead Theresa Pistochini. The lesson culminated with groups of 4-5 students constructing do-it-yourself (DIY) portable air cleaners using a Corsi-Rosenthal cube design, which uses a box fan and four filters with a MERV 13 rating. The materials for each air cleaner cost $75. Each air cleaner is expected to provide about the same amount of air cleaning effectiveness as small commercially available portable air cleaners that cost about $200.

Science teachers Amber Mitchell and Kathryn Graf planned the visit with UC Davis researchers Theresa Pistochini and Robert McMurry. “I love having outside speakers come in. Air quality is such a relevant topic that we are able to teach the kids about,” Mitchell said. “We are always trying to relate science to current events and student’s lives. There’s not much more relatable right now than making air purifiers to help our school.”

Students at Rio Tierra Junior High School in Sacramento investigate filter samples of various filtration efficiencies and discuss their observations with science teacher Amber Mitchell.

Importance of air quality

“Air quality is such an important topic that historically has not received much attention. I hope that our outreach to students will encourage them to think about the air they breathe, and consider engineering and environmental science as a career path,” Pistochini said. “While investments in permanent ventilation and filtration systems are the best way to improve indoor air quality long-term, portable air cleaners are a quick way to achieve some immediate benefits.”

Principal Adam Sinor supported the project and visited the classrooms to see the air cleaner construction in action. “With the wildfires and Covid, and the way Covid is spread through aerosols, it’s a way kids can take action to make their internal environment better and learn science and engineering at the same time,” Sinor said.

UC Davis researcher Theresa Pistochini working with students to build a portable air cleaner.

Project support

This project was funded by the UC Davis Sustainable Campus, Sustainable Cities initiative, which received funding from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Sustainable Community Program. The initiative aims to engage K-12 students in energy-oriented STEM education, using experiential learning as well as citizen and community science to empower students to measure, analyze, understand, and manage their environment.

Media contacts

Theresa Pistochini, UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center, 916-612-6418, tepistochini@ucdavis.edu
Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-7704, kekerlin@ucdavis.edu

Media sources

DIY Portable Air Cleaner Testing – https://energy.ucdavis.edu/wp-content/uploads/Case-Study_DIY-Portable-Air-Cleaners-083121.pdf
Photos – https://ucdavis.box.com/s/uwf09x39122r0b4pgdlwbgusaihjirnq
Websitehttps://wcec.ucdavis.edu/improving-indoor-air-quality-in-california-schools/