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Environmental health and service learning.


In developing curriculum for a Salt Lake City, Utah High School's Advance Placement--Environmental Studies class, one goal was a module on air quality/air pollution. University of Utah graduate students and faculty presented on air pollution topics. Community exposure to school bus emissions was identified and students developed a study design, performed air sampling, learned to interpret results, and communicate results and recommendations to various audiences. This project emphasized health impacts, public awareness, and policy recommendations to promote change.


Service Learning Service learning is "a method of teaching that enriches the process of learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their schools and communities through careful integration with established curricula."[1,2] This learning methodology is often coordinated with institutions of higher education, as well as communities, as a way to apply solutions to real-world problems. Students learn through active participation in projects that meet real community needs, and in doing so learn to be involved and concerned about community issues. [1] Shelly Billig pointed out the positive impacts that service learning has on students in personal and social development, their sense of civic and social responsibility, academic learning and career exploration. [2] Extending learning beyond the walls of the classroom enhances what is taught in the classroom. A major component of service learning is ongoing evaluation and reflection throughout the project in order to strengthen and reinforce learning. [3]

Diesel Exhaust Diesel exhaust contains very fine particulate matter and toxic gases. More than 40 individual diesel exhaust chemicals are known carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants. [4] The EPA has classified diesel exhaust as a probable human carcinogen. Diesel particulate matter (DPM) in exhaust is of great concern since 94% of it is less than 2.5 [micro]m in diameter and is almost totally respirable. Ninety-two percent of particles less than 1.0 [micro]m in diameter can penetrate deep within human lungs.[5] Exposure to DPM can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems and has been associated with decreased pulmonary function, increased airway inflammation and infection susceptibility and increased cancer risk.[6] Although allowable exposure standards to DPM have been established for adults in the workplace, no safe level of exposure has currently been established for children.[5] Children are identified as particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of diesel exhaust since their airways are not fully developed and they breathe 50% more air per pound of body weight than adults.[7]


This service learning research project was based on the locally significant issue of environmental exposure to school bus emissions. The idea to perform a collaborative service learning project between the University of Utah and a Salt Lake City high school was conceived and developed by a University of Utah professor after reflecting on many recent articles focusing on the public health concerns associated with idling school buses. This collaboration was formalized by a meeting between the University of Utah's Service-Learning Program, the University of Utah's Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, and a faculty member of Salt Lake City's Highland High School. Further support for this project came from Highland High School administrators, who were currently debating the issue of how to address the environmental impacts of idling school buses at their school. The intent of this project was to address this issue through the performance of air pollution and health education community service activities.


The primary objective of this service learning project was to provide an opportunity for high school students to learn and apply principles of industrial hygiene and public health to assess a community exposure concern and meet pertinent goals of the classroom. Students were able to conduct a public health study that was relevant to their daily lives. In meeting this objective the students were introduced to the scientific process of conducting a study, interpreting the results and relating them to various audiences in a meaningful and responsible way. One secondary objective was to allow students the opportunity to apply in a practical manner what they had learned in the classroom. Additionally, the students were introduced to the public health field and the technical industrial hygiene principles of air sampling. One final goal was that students might promote public awareness regarding air quality and its potential health impacts.

Methods and Materials

Prior to field sampling, 10 high school students were given instruction through several lectures by a University of Utah Industrial Hygiene graduate student. Lectures were developed and integrated into the current academic curriculum of the high school class, and were intended to emphasize and supplement what was taught in recent air quality classes. The first lecture presented the students with a broad overview of the service-learning project and illustrated the importance of the project, timeline and class goals. In the next lecture, students received a broad education on diesel emissions and the potential health effects from exposures to DPM. Extensive discussion was given to the components of diesel exhaust and its potential associated environmental and health risks. A second session on DPM sampling protocols familiarized students with specific monitoring instruments and techniques that would be used to collect data in the field. AP students monitored student activity around the buses once school was out and determined where placement of monitors would be most representative of actual student exposures. Students also coordinated with the Salt Lake City School Bus Transportation Department to determine convenient sampling dates and times.

Sampling protocols were developed using practices from similar studies found in the literature.[5,6] Real-time data loggers were easy for students to operate and allowed them to see immediate results from monitoring conducted on and around buses. Air monitoring sessions were conducted in 8 three hour sessions. Students compared DPM and CO levels in the front versus the back of buses during routine bus routes. Sampling was also conducted in outdoor areas adjacent to idling buses on school grounds. All students then learned to download their acquired data into computer software specific to each instrument. Each student assisted in all aspects of the research project. Following sampling, two lecture sessions were held to analyze monitoring data and results. These sessions enabled students to interpret findings and compare results to similar studies. Based on these sessions, students developed a scientific paper and poster with the assistance of the University of Utah graduate student, both of which were entered in the Salt Lake Valley Regional Science and Engineering Fair. Reflection activities were performed throughout the course of the project to ensure successful integration of lectures and service with coursework.[10] Reflection incorporates critical and creative student thinking in an effort to evaluate what was done, learned, experienced, and how society was affected by their services performed.[3] Many structured reflection activities took place in the form of discussions involving the entire AP class. During the service experience, specific reflection activities included students keeping logs of bus route sampling activities and one-on-one discussions between students and the graduate student. Following the service experience, reflection activities included the scientific paper and poster developed by the students, student interviews and student presentations to school administrators and the community.

Course Evaluation

This service learning project received widespread approval from the ten participating high school students. All students agreed that they would recommend similar collaborative projects as a part of future high school classes. Students enjoyed the structure of the lectures and agreed that they were well aligned with air monitoring activities and their curriculum. Each student enjoyed the opportunity to become familiar with monitoring equipment and to participate in data collection. Students were encouraged to work together as a team throughout the project and they learned that it was useful to take advantage of individual talents in the group for different tasks. Students also felt that the extra time needed to perform field work was often difficult to find due to extracurricular activities and work schedules. Some students also noted that school seemed more stressful since many other normal assignments were assigned to them in addition to requirements for the service learning project. Despite this, many wished that there had been more time in the semester to perform additional air monitoring to gather more representative and reliable data. Students agreed that the critical thinking skills used in the project were valuable tools for the future. Overall, students felt that they enjoyed participating in a project that empowered them to create change on a local level.


Despite the success of this project, it was not without limitations. It is difficult to perform a long-term study in only one semester. Student class time and schedules made it difficult to collect a large data set. On one occasion while performing air sampling on a bus route, the data collected was accidentally erased. This critical mistake wasn't a total loss because it was used as a learning experience. Students realized the reality of problems that can occur while performing a scientific study. Despite these difficulties with time and technology, the goals of the project were realized. Ongoing reflection activities during and after the service experience ensured that student questions were addressed and that project objectives were being met. Students had the opportunity to be informed about a relevant topic of interest that directly pertained to their lives and surrounding community. In the collaborative effort between a graduate Industrial Hygiene student and high school science students, school bus DPM emission data were collected and analyzed. Recommendations were then developed based on data interpretation and control options. Some of the recommendations made to the Salt Lake City School Bus District include reducing the school bus idling time in front of the school, installing particle traps on older buses and loading/unloading buses away from school entrances and windows.

The idea to submit a group entry to the Salt Lake Valley Regional Science and Engineering Fair occurred early on in project planning. Students worked together in groups to design a paper and poster titled "School Bus Emissions: Does it Matter Where You Sit?" Students presented their project for two days to judges and community members. One measurement of the success of this service learning study was the reception of many team awards in this fair. The students' team entry received third place overall. The students then presented their project to Highland High School administrators and the local school bus district. In the final class session the strengths and weaknesses of the service learning project were discussed. Everyone had positive feedback, and the teacher eagerly invited similar collaboration in the future. The Salt Lake School Bus District made it known that they were happy with the results of the project and welcomed future studies on local school buses.


This collaboration successfully provided an opportunity for high school students to learn and apply principles of industrial hygiene and public health to assess a community exposure concern and meet pertinent goals of the classroom. It also empowered them to make scientific-based recommendations for the improvement of their school environment. Because this activity promoted awareness and understanding of important public health issues, the significance of this type of community outreach cannot be understated. Even more meaningful to the University of Utah is the possibility that high school students will become interested in public health principles and become active contributors to the overall health of society.


A special thanks to everyone that helped in making this project possible:

* Monica French, Highland High School AP Environmental Science Teacher

* Highland High School AP Environmental Science Class

* Highland High School Administrators

* Les, Anwar, & Jason, Salt Lake City School Bus District

The author of this publication was partially funded by the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine 's Health Studies Fund at the University of Utah and a training grant (#T42/CCT810426) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/NIOSH. The contents are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the official views of the University of Utah or NIOSH.

Literature Cited

[1.] Crews, Robin. "What is Service Learning". University of Colorado at Boulder Service Learning Handbook. 1995, April.

[2.] Billig, Shelly. The Impacts of Service-Learning on Youth, Schools, and Communities: Research in K-12 School-Based Service-Learning, 1990-1999.

[3.] Blanchard, Drew. Academic Service Learning: The Reflection Concept. Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University.

[4.] Weinhold, Bob. "For the Long Haul? Diesel in America". Environmental Health Perspectives. 110(8): 458-464 (2002).

[5.] Wargo, John. Children's Exposure to Diesel Exhaust on School Buses. Environment and Human Health, Inc. 2002, Feb.

[6.] National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). No Breathing in the Aisles: Diesel Exhaust Inside School Buses. 2001, Jan.

[7.] USEPA. Diesel Exhaust in the United States.

[8.] USEPA. Diesel Exhaust and School Bus Idling

[9.] Diesel Emissions Evaluation Program (DEEP). Diesel Particulate Matter Sampling Methods: Statistical Comparison.

[10.] Stephenson, Meg. Wechsler, Ann. Welch, Marshall. Service Learning in the Curriculum: A Faculty Guide. 2003.

[11.] Service Learning. Using Structured Reflection to Enhance Learning from Service.

Kelly Tuohig, University of Utah

Dale Stephenson, University of Utah

Dean Lillquist, University of Utah

Justin Bird, University of Utah

Stephen Alder, University of Utah

Marc Babitz, University of Utah

Tuohig and Bird are graduate students at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health completing their MSPH degrees. Stephenson, PhD and Lillquist PhD are Industrial Hygiene faculty at the Center. Alder, PhD is faculty in the Public Health Program. Babitz, MD is faculty in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine
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Article Details
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Author:Babitz, Marc
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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