Success: Particles Detected!

Homemade particle sensor

Dr. Dorothy Fibiger helping girls build particle sensors at Women in STEM Event session at the University of Wyoming.

Homemade particle sensor

Homemade particle sensor in action.

Homemade particle sensor

Dr. Carrie Womack’s hands-on demonstration with laser beams and orange peels gets behind the science of visualizing air pollution.

NOAA booth at event

Susan Cobb (right) informs girls at Women in STEM about NOAA science, distributing education products and discussing STEM career opportunities.

I feel so ‘sciency’ right now,” exclaimed Emmy, when her team’s homemade particle sensor fully lit up three red LED bulbs. The sensor detected particle content near the chalkboard, in the carpeted corners, and near the door of a University of Wyoming classroom. Her enthusiastic outburst represents success of another kind: getting middle and high school girls excited about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). That’s what the annual Women in STEM event at the University of Wyoming is all about, and it is where Dr. Dorothy Fibiger, research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder who works in NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, presented three sessions called “Air Quality with Arduinos.”

Budding scientists from grades 7–12 talked with Fibiger about their interests and studies. Fibiger shared her research as well, showing slides of her work on a recent NOAA field campaign measuring air quality in the Salt Lake City region. She impressed the students with photos of herself atop a Twin Otter airplane mounting an instrument, and of a colorful sunrise she took during a flight that started at 3:00 a.m. 

Fibiger talked about the importance of understanding air quality and our fragile 35-km atmosphere—the girls made wild guesses that it extended as far as 500,000 miles to space. She explained what particles are and what they do, how they differ in size, and that the small ones are a mere 1/20th of the width of a human hair. “These particles,” Fibiger explained, “impact human health as they can get deep into the lungs and cause breathing problems.”

Assigned to find dirty air inside and outside the classroom, small teams of students set about building their “particle busters.” They attached a breadboard (a board for making an experimental model of an electric circuit), a tiny, programmed Arduino computer board, a sensor element, and a battery to mini metal lunch boxes using  Velcro. Then they pinned LED bulbs, placed color-coded wires, and attached transistors, following Fibiger’s comprehensive instructions. With a little help, all teams successfully assembled their particle sensors.

After a disappointing particle hunt outside, the girls learned that there is good reason why they were not successful in lighting up all three bulbs on their instruments. That’s because, said Fibiger, sharing her colleague Dr. Steve Brown’s suitable motto, “dilution is the solution to pollution.” This was an ‘aha’ moment for the girls.

Dr. Carrie Womack, a NOAA post doc and NRC fellowship recipient, also presented at the event, for the second consecutive year. During her sessions, “Visualizing Air Pollution: Making Aerosol Particles from Orange Peels,” Womack explained how plant- and human-related emissions contribute to making aerosols, and how those aerosols affect air quality and the global climate.

She and the girls generated aerosols in a fish tank from an ozone light and biogenic hydrocarbons from citrus peels, rosemary sprigs, and pine needles. With this captivating experiment, Womack showed the “just-created” aerosol particles using green and red laser beams she rigged up to the tank. The students were wowed to see science in the making.

For the 10th year, NOAA communicators staffed a booth at the May 16 Women in STEM event with educational materials and handouts, for some 500 participants. Susan Cobb and Annie Reiser engaged the curious girls with colorful posters and the science behind the tabletop tornado. No one went home empty-handed, and the event inspired students by giving them a better understanding of what scientists do, and presenting positive female role models in the science, mathematics, engineering fields.