Seeing the Air They Breathe: Raising Air Quality Awareness in Forsyth County

by Andrew Whelan

For something that impacts us every second of every day, air quality can seem very intangible compared to other day-to-day concerns. “Most people don’t even think about air pollution,” explains Thomas Hillis. “It can be easy to just forget about, because it’s often invisible.”

As the Air Awareness Coordinator for Forsyth County, Hillis works to raise the profile of local air quality issues and help residents protect their health. Much of his outreach focuses on children and other populations that are particularly sensitive to air pollution. He organizes educational programs with local schools and summer camps and has launched a campaign to discourage vehicle idling.

But Hillis worries that this is just treating the symptoms if children view air quality as an abstract problem that doesn’t touch their lives. For several years he’s been searching for ways to use physical representations of air pollution that kids can relate to the air they breathe.

As part of our ongoing push to make invisible air pollution visible, Clean Air Carolina has partnered with Hillis and Forsyth County’s Triad Air Awareness program. This past February we provided Hillis with several small, affordable air sensors that the kids can use in interactive air quality education.

Forsyth County is using these monitors in a couple of ways. Kaleideum Museum, a Winston-Salem science museum, installed a PurpleAir sensor just outside their building. They now feature an interactive exhibit with two touchscreen monitors. The first displays global air quality, allowing people to zoom in and out to see air pollution levels around the world. The second monitor is connected to the PurpleAir sensor and displays real-time local air quality, showing visitors what they are actually breathing when they step outside the museum.

“The fact that the local air quality data is being reported from that very location, the air that visitors are actually breathing, makes this a very unique exhibit,” Hillis says. “By comparing the two screens side-by-side, kids can make that global-to-local connection and understand that they personally experience the same air quality issues they read about in the news.”

Thomas Hillis shows displays of global and local air quality to visitors of Kaleideum Museum.

Hillis is also using a portable AirBeam sensor in classroom demonstrations at local schools. The 5th and 7th grade science curriculums in Forsyth County place a lot of emphasis on weather and air quality. By giving students hands-on opportunities to use the AirBeam sensor, Hillis is helping kids relate what they learn in the classroom with their real-world experiences.

The students Hillis works with have loved being able to actually test the material they learn in class for themselves, especially with something so localized and relevant to them. Hillis frequently hears students ask each other where the air pollution they’re measuring comes from. Even better is when the students begin to take the next step and think about ways to reduce the air pollution they’re breathing.

“Just being aware that it exists, that’s the first step,” says Hillis. “The second step is to get them thinking about how local air pollution levels affect them personally, or their communities.”

Hillis gave this classroom demonstration to 1,350 elementary and middle school students during the Spring 2019 semester, a number he hopes will grow significantly over the new school year. Hillis envisions expanding this program to incorporate more hands-on demonstrations of air quality in Forsyth County’s schools, after school programs, museums, and summer camps.

“Hopefully this is just the beginning,” says Hillis. “These personal air sensors are such powerful teaching tools. They provide a direct, tangible connection for kids to the air they’re breathing every day.”

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