News & Features

EPA and UT Austin Team Up to Assess Air Quality in Texas High Schools

Leigh Lesnick and Wiley Jennings in high school lab 

Graduate students Leigh Lesnick and Wiley Jennings perform tests at one of the high schools.

Oct. 26, 2015

A team of engineers and health researchers at The University of Texas at Austin plan to shed light on how environmental conditions could affect students’ health, attendance and learning in high school, and to offer low-cost, long-term solutions to help schools combat those affects.

The researchers were motivated by mounting scientific evidence that poor indoor air quality and inadequate classroom ventilation contribute to student illness and therefore absenteeism and decreases in academic performance. The team’s study will include comprehensive measurements and analyses of air quality, noise levels, lighting and thermal conditions that may be compromising the overall health of students and teachers.

With a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the UT Austin team plans to study environmental conditions inside six Texas high schools, including over 120 total classrooms. The researchers also plan to test low-cost solutions that will help create a healthier environment and could improve the overall educational experience for students. This is one of seven research projects the EPA is funding as part of a larger effort to improve school environments indoors for the nation’s children.

“Our children and teachers spend a substantial amount of their lives inside school buildings,” said air quality expert Richard L. Corsi, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at UT Austin. “We believe it is critical to gain a better understanding of this environment and its implications for health and learning, and we hope the solutions we create will be applied in schools across the country, giving our children a better environment for academic success.”

The UT Austin project, called Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on Indoor Environments), will help identify common sources of indoor air quality problems in schools, such as poor ventilation, HVAC structural issues and the presence of bacteria and chemical irritants.

Started over the summer, the project is one of the first of its kind to focus on high schools, which are considered more challenging to assess because students are often changing classrooms throughout the school day.

Corsi has assembled a multidisciplinary team consisting of experts in children’s health, indoor air quality, microbiology, building science and community-engaged research to tackle the Texas-based project.

five CAEE professors standing in front of lockers

Left to right: Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) associate professor Atila Novoselac, School of Architecture/Center for Sustainable Development program coordinator Sarah Wu, CAEE professor Kerry Kinney, CAEE Chair Richard Corsi, who is leading the study, and Cockrell School research scientist in the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources Neil Crain.

The engineers will provide detailed assessments of three main areas: HVAC systems and ventilation; exposure to bacteria, mold and other allergens; and the presence of potentially harmful particles called Oxygentated Volatile Organic Compounds (OVOCs) which are emitted from furnishings, adhesives, coatings, cleaning agents and other sources. While considered less toxic, OVOCs can irritate eyes, noses and respiratory systems.

Meanwhile, Sharon Horner of the UT Austin School of Nursing, a key investigator in the project, will lead efforts to monitor and track the health of students and teachers who choose to participate in the study.

As part of the NSF-funded project, the UT Austin research team will use the indoor air quality studies to engage students in the participating high schools, offering hands-on learning opportunities through student research, workshops and team-based projects. Additionally, teachers will use the study as a basis for new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) lessons related to data analysis and indoor environmental science and engineering.

At the end of the four-year grant, Corsi and his team plan to deliver their findings and provide schools and districts with creative yet practical solutions to improve their indoor environments.

“School districts are often very cost-constrained, so we want to make sure we offer ideas for affordable solutions that will help districts improve their schools and make them healthier,” Corsi added.