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By Mary-Lou Considine 4 June 2019 5 min read

Temperature inversions like this one near Ballarat, Victoria, occur when warm air ‘caps’ cooler air, causing smoke from burns or domestic wood-stoves to become trapped in valleys at night and in the early morning. Temperature and humidity play a key role in the dispersion of smoke. Image: Ed Dunens/flickr, (CC BY 2.0) ©  Ed Dunens

SMOG – short for Smoke Observation Gadget – is a smart, low-cost air-monitoring kit that’s improving the STEM skills of Victorian school students and educating regional communities about the impact of smoke emissions on air quality.

At the heart of the SMOG device – which students build, program and operate themselves – is a credit-card sized ‘computer’ known as a Raspberry Pi that can be connected to a keyboard, monitor and USB drive.

This allows the students to control and program the device, collect data via the plug-in USB drive, and then upload the data to remote servers via the internet.

It’s a hands-on approach to promoting interest in STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – that’s been given the thumbs-up by Grades 5 and 6 students at Anglesea and Boolarra Primary Schools in Victoria.

Raspberry Pi inside

CSIRO scientist Fabienne Reisen worked with local electronic engineering design company 4Volts to develop the SMOG kits for Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP), the agency that managed planned burning in public forests and parks across the state.

“Smoke and particles from fires can affect human health, triggering asthma attacks and other conditions,” explains Fabienne Reisen.

“As community engagement is a core part of DELWP’s fire management policy, particularly in relation to helping people understand the impact of planned burns, CSIRO scientists made the decision to work with schools and engage the regional community via the education pathway.”

A graphic illustrating the size of PM2.5 and PM10 particles compared with a human hair and grains of sand. The PM2.5 size-class presents the greater risk to human health as the very small particles can penetrate lung and other tissue. (Source: US-EPA)

SMOGs use a light-scattering technique to measure the density of airborne particles in the 2.5 micrometre (PM2.5) and 10 micrometre (PM10) size ranges. (Ten micrometres is about one-tenth the width of a human hair.) The PM2.5 particles are linked to smoke-related health problems.

Planning the rollout

By 2017, with the SMOG assembly kit finalised and a Grade 6–8 curriculum devised with the help of CSIRO Education and Outreach, Fabienne Reisen carried out a successful test-run at a Grade 6 class at Melbourne’s Wattle Park Primary School.

The next step for CSIRO and DELWP was to deploy the SMOG units at Anglesea and Boolarra primary schools.

Anglesea is located close to Victoria’s coastal Otway Ranges in the state’s south-west, while Boolarra is in Gippsland’s Latrobe Valley, the location of Victoria’s coal-fired power industry.

Most students had no problems assembling the SMOG kits, with or without following the instructions.

Because both areas have suffered damaging bushfires (and air-quality problems) in the past, planned burns to reduce fuel loads are carried out whenever conditions allow. But, while these burns reduce the likelihood and intensity of future bushfires, they also bring smoke emissions, underscoring the importance of community engagement.

SMOG at Anglesea

According to Anglesea Primary’s Grade 6 teacher, Julie Sampson, the SMOG project has broadened students’ understanding of fire behaviour, planned burning and health impacts, and deepened their STEM skills.

“As well as STEM, the project is linked to the school’s CFA program, to geography and to English, because they’re keeping diaries.

“They keep a diary of the weather, if they’ve had asthma or hay fever on certain days, whether the family had a barbeque or a fire going in the cold weather, and so on. So when they look at the air-particle readings, they can put them into context.

“The project has engaged the students because they know their data are going to be used by DELWP to help with planning future burnoffs. They know there's a real purpose to making the particle observations.”

SMOG units are usually installed in an open, outdoor location around students’ home, although some Anglesea students installed theirs inside, to compare air quality differences.

During a recent school visit to the Anglesea CFA, CFA officer Jamie Mackenzie asked the students to compare their data with meteorological records on wind speed and direction, and temperature and humidity, all of which affect smoke behaviour. He also encouraged them to look at maps of recent CFA burns and incidents to see whether their data and diaries correlated with fire activity.

“The students could see quite clearly that their data were high on and around those days when the burnoffs were taking place in April and May,” says Julie Sampson.

“They worked out how these burnoffs impacted Anglesea, and why smoke hung around – it was because the humidity was so high on those days. That was the cause of one of the students ending up with bad asthma on one particular day.”

SMOG at Boolarra

While Anglesea Primary has linked up with the CFA on its SMOG deployment, Boolarra Primary is running the project as part of the EPA’s citizen science program with students from Grade’s 5 and 6 and “a few science-oriented Grade 4 students”, says teacher Finley Smith.

“They particularly enjoyed constructing the SMOG units. They loved that the small computer component is called a Raspberry Pi, and embraced the responsibility of taking the units home to set up."

“The students were all familiar with the impact of smoke on air quality and health, given the history of bushfires in this area.

“They particularly enjoyed constructing the SMOG units. They loved that the small computer component is called a Raspberry Pi and embraced the responsibility of taking the units home to set up.

“They are also expected to keep a diary of any interesting ‘air quality’ events that occur each day, such as when they light their fireplace, if there is a bonfire nearby, when their parents mow the lawn, or have a barbecue.

“We have only just deployed the units, and it will be interesting to see how our data compares to Anglesea.

“The CSIRO staff have been very down-to-earth and extremely supportive. Despite being two hours from Melbourne, they have been more than willing to travel to the school to meet with parents and help students with the construction and programming of their units.”

Next steps

The current SMOG project is due to finish at the end of June, when Fabienne Reisen will ask the schools to do a poster presentation to ‘publish’ their experiments. The next challenge will be for CSIRO to expand the program to other schools in Victoria and interstate.

In the meantime, the data collected with the SMOG units feed into the real-time air quality visualisation tool (AQVx) and help to validate the air quality forecasting system (AQFx) used by Victoria’s State Control Centre to forecast smoke-emissions plumes across the state.

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