Tinkering in the name of science at Ezra Prentice Earth Day

Tinkering in the name of science at Ezra Prentice Earth Day

Over a dozen kids decked out in face paint, handmade pom-pom necklaces and some very official white lab coats made their way up Albany’s Cherry Hill on a warm Saturday afternoon. A few of them fiddled with handheld remote controls, eyes locked on their targets–some boxy, whirring rovers covered in colorful painted flowers, butterflies and pipe cleaners that chugged and weaved up the hill. These citizen scientists were on a very important data-collecting mission, mapping air particulate data along six designated points that loop the surrounding neighborhood of the Ezra Prentice housing development. After driving their rovers up Cherry Hill by way of South Pearl And 1st St. the group marched down McCarty St. and concluded their study at the Ezra Prentice playground, where they begged to play on the swings.

“Science first!” their mission leader Maria Michails said playfully.

The rover project was initiated by Michails, a PhD candidate at RPI and multidisciplinary artist looking to engage her community in broader environmental issues.

For three years, residents and local representatives’ have publicly called for legislative action against the increase of traffic via oil trains at the Port of Albany and diesel trucks through South Pearl Street running through Ezra Prentice that are believed to contribute to poor air quality and health issues. With the rovers and help from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Michails hopes to get the attention of local government to make the health of South End a priority.

“It’s usually low-income, minority communities who are living in the locations where these kinds of emissions take place, you don’t have middle class or affluent families living in these areas,” she points out.

“Learning about air quality is very complex so the most important part is figuring out how to interpret this data, but the narrative is really important because these residents are living with this every day and it’s hard to nail down what particulate is causing which ailment.”

Michails had originally presented a prototype of the rover during an AVillage… Inc. community meeting over a year ago. The artist runs an ongoing Tinker Space after-school program in partnership with the organization, drawing in local kids from 8 to 13 years old.  In Tinker Space, the local kids are presented with electronic toys which they then tear apart to learn their inner workings and rebuild into a creation that is all their own. The community’s Earth Week wrap up celebration on Saturday (April 29) included an exhibition of their sculptures.  

“We’re like archeological scientists,” Michails said of herself and the participating citizen scientists. “Toys intrigue us. This gets them thinking, ‘What are they made of? How do they work?’ We take them apart, lay all the pieces out and photograph them and the kids recreate the toy into something new they’ve imagined using old household items.”

With the data rovers, Michails applied the same general idea. The tiny vehicles are repurposed RC trucks that have been augmented with particulate matter (PM) sensors to monitor dust and humidity at 2.5 microns in size. “These monitors are better equipped to monitor dust indoors but I’ve calibrated them to work outside using a similar math equation,” she explained. At 2.5 microns, this is the smallest particulate size that has been regulated by the government so far. According to the DEC Division of Air Resources, these come from the “burning petroleum-based fuels for heating buildings and powering motor vehicles,” as well as “dust from industrial activities.”

However these aren’t the only particulates that are putting the residents of the South End at risk each day. What the kids’ remote controlled rovers aren’t catching are the ultrafine particles. The particulate matter of nanoscale size (.1 micron) that Michails says can infiltrate the lungs and bloodstream comes from “burning diesel fuel in vehicles and other combustion sources,” and is still largely unstudied and therefore unregulated. The sensors Michails has carefully attached to each RC truck don’t have the ability to detect them, however the DEC’s new onsite monitoring equipment does.

Tagging along on the walk is Brian Frank, a scientist at the department’s Division of Air Resources, bringing with him a clunky backpack with a portable ultrafine particle counter (PUFP) attached, now strapped securely to an energetic citizen scientist, Myleya Farmer, who has volunteered to carry the highly sensitive equipment and record its data for comparison along the way. The device counts the number of ultrafine particles in the air every second and creates data maps using GPS technology.

“We’re potentially looking at the whole air quality, but in different pieces. You might have a PM 2.5 map and then an ultrafine map and that can be completely different and might tell you about what’s really contributing. The ultrafines are coming from the vehicles, so you might look and say, ‘oh, here vehicle pollution is contributing but over here, it’s not contributing–so what else is going on in that area?” Frank explains.

The DEC recently implemented their intensive air monitoring study in March that is set to run through mid-2018. This study follows the short-term screening done in 2014–which yielded results which “were not unusual” and another 2015 study that expanded their pollutant list (“regularly collected since 1973”) to include benzene, formaldehyde and other petroleum-associated pollutants. The latest study will include the PUFP backpack monitoring walks and fixed monitoring stations that Frank says will stream data continuously, displayed 24/7 on the stations’ embedded screens as well as the DEC website. Additionally included are small benzene monitors to sample levels at the Port of Albany biweekly and mini-monitoring stations to be set up at different locations in 3-4 hour shifts throughout the year.

“After collecting the data in clumps,” Frank said, “Our plan is to come quarterly and talk to the community about what we’re seeing. We may come more frequently if people want it. The portable monitoring stations will likely change [places] as we go on, but the pattern will only get more clearer the more we look.”

Michail’s project can be considered a piece of this much larger puzzle–a fun, hands on experience of what kind of work the DEC will be doing over the course of the year and how the community can get involved.


“My devices are part of an art project but I’m really interested in the science of it and how the two [themes] can bridge to broaden research questions,” she said. “It’s interesting to bring citizen science and DIY together to learn more deeply about the environment and it’s a way to introduce kids to the scientific method while using art because it makes the broader ideas easier to understand.”

To help them out, the kids were paired up with RPI students from the EcoEd research program, an elective class that requires students with majors ranging from computer science to electrical engineering to get involved with their community teaching environmental sustainability through educational outreach for kids K-12.

“I’ve always cared about environmental issues but haven’t had time to really get involved  in any way,” Lexi Peterson said. The electrical engineering major is considering a PhD in environmental monitoring and spent the day studying the sensors that Michail had calibrated for the rovers. In terms of mentoring, Peterson has gotten a lot of practice with elementary students while in the program. “They’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for, they’re able to comprehend really complex things.”

Along the way, the students helped their team of mini-scientists interpret the data on their rover’s screen, offering advice as the kids recorded notes on the temperature, humidity and measure of particulate matter at each station. At each stop, Frank and Michails asked the kids to make observations on their surroundings at each spot: What do you hear? What do you see? What does it smell like?

At the 787 underpass by South Pearl St., one young citizen scientist studied the screen of her rover with scrunched eyebrows. “Hey,” she said to no one in particular, her panda-painted face turning upwards, “when that car drove by my numbers went up!”

“Why do you think that happened?” she was asked. The panda gave no reply but sat with her observation. Just that, Michails and Frank agreed, was enough to make the project worth it.

“They noticed distinct differences, just from walking around,” Michails said. “It helps them to understand the different types of particulates in the air because there is a mix of pollutants in the area surrounding Ezra Prentice.”


The rovers will be on exhibition next week at Collar Works in Troy and Michails is working on a website with RPI grad students so that the they can be networked. “Wherever they go, they’ll be tracked on a map and you’ll be able to see real time data streaming,” she said. “We want to find out how this data correlates to public health and to gather a picture of how these ultrafines are recorded and how they interact.”

The biggest challenge has been working with the new technology to stream data efficiently. “It’s a little bit of treading in uncharted territory,” she said. While it is a new process to undertake–and new level of particulate to study–Frank is optimistic about his division’s work in the upcoming year.

“Its innovative in that there have been programs that have used fixed monitoring before, there have been others that have used portables, but what we’re hoping to do is to integrate those two. The fixed monitors will be running 24/7 and the portables only run for three to four hours. So if the fixed monitor says, ‘these levels are the highest at 6 AM, you guys should really be out here’, that’s when we will head out, instead of trying to staff all of the time slots–but we hope it’s not 6 AM,” he joked.

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