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Office of News & Public Affairs

BC Researcher, Undergraduates Pursue
‘Neighborhood Science’ Study in Boston

nsf grant profject offers residents insight into their environment

CHESTNUT HILL, MA (May 2013) – With funding from the National Science Foundation, Boston College students and faculty install sensors to track air quality in Boston neighborhoods and relay the data to storefront windows they plan to convert into large touch screen displays.

G. Michael Barnett

The two-year, $200,000 NSF award will allow a class of undergraduate students to use novel technologies to collect and disseminate environmental data in real time to inform the public and raise an awareness about the environment, as well as science and technology, said G. Michael Barnett, an associate professor of science education and technology at Boston College's Lynch School of Education, and the grant’s principal investigator.

Barnett said the emphasis on making scientific data available to the public just as it is collected might be considered a non-traditional, or “guerilla,” approach to research and teaching. But new technologies are rapidly removing barriers to information previously available through scientific journals, specialized websites or archives.

“Our goal is to provide access to scientific data and analyses that are understandable and of interest to the general public in a way that does not require a visit to a museum,” said Barnett, the 2012 CASE Professor of the Year in Massachusetts. “People will see science in their everyday lives, in the places where they regularly walk, visit, or spend their time.”

Barnett, who works in the Lynch School of Education, is partnering with the Educational Development Center of Waltham, as well as BC’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

Students in Barnett’s class Science for Future Presidents will deploy environmental sensors known as Air Quality Eggs, produced by Wicked Device, of Ithaca, NY, in the Boston neighborhoods of Brighton, West Roxbury, Dorchester, Roxbury, West Roxbury, South End, South Boston, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

Sensors will also be placed in other cities and towns, including Newton, Framingham, Waltham, Beckett, Stoughton, Norwood, Arlington, Cambridge and Watertown for comparative analysis, Barnett said.

As data about ozone, dust, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, temperature, humidity and volatile organic compounds are collected, the information will be transmitted through a platform created by Chelmsford-based Cosm, a real-time data service provider.

“The Air Quality Egg project was designed to put easy-to-use tools into the hands of everyday citizens," said Ed Borden, community manager at Cosm. “By engaging with the public in Boston in this way, we're able to start experimenting with how science and data can be brought down to the hyper-local level.”

At the same time, the data will be displayed in local storefront windows through touch foil technology, a thin film that can be placed on any glass surface and transform it into a large, interactive touch screen able to display data, said Barnett. He said the student teams will place touch foil screens at the Kroc Center in Dorchester, Boston City Hall and the Elephant Walk Restaurant in Waltham.

“We can do this using touch foil technologies to connect the work that is done in an undergraduate course with the general public,” said Barnett. “We believe we are the first course of its kind in the United States to attempt such an innovative engagement strategy.”

Barnett said the project is supported by a number of community partners, including Cosm and Wicked Device, as well as Back Pages Books and the Elephant Walk restaurant in Waltham, the Waltham Public Library, GYO Stuff, of Cambridge, and American Hydroponics, in California.

Elephant Walk owner Robert Perry said the project aligns with his mission to serve as a “benefit restaurant” in the Waltham community. “Gathering and sharing information with our guests and the general public about our immediate environment in real time via this exciting new touch foil technology will bring our mission to life”, said Perry.

Back Pages Books owner Alex Green said, "This technology and the underlying mission that drives it are a perfect fit for a community bookstore in the Boston area, where we strive to be a hub for conversation and ideas in ways that deeply affect mindsets through excitement and wonder."

A second part of the NSF grant adds continued support to Barnett’s ongoing use of soil-free gardening in science education and community engagement. Using state-of-the-art vertical farming methods, Barnett’s undergraduates will grow vegetables and sell them at local farmers’ markets.

The hydroponic gardening technology has been shown to effectively engage students in interdisciplinary science through the application of aspects of chemistry, physics, biology, and economics, said Barnett, who has worked on similar projects with students at the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, the Kroc Center in Dorchester, and Brighton High School and the West Roxbury Education Complex, which send students to College Bound, a pre-collegiate program at the Lynch School.

“Giving young teachers experience and knowledge in raising their own food can have a tremendous effect on their students, particularly urban youth,” Barnett said. “Our research shows that students who understand the science behind growing their own food have developed interests toward science, healthier eating habits, and developed critical thinking and analysis skills.”

—Ed Hayward is an associate director in the Office of News & Public Affairs.