SPUR 2020: Social inequalities in exposure to environmental hazards in Utah: Impacts on schoolchildren


Air pollution is a serious hazard to human health, with children being more vulnerable than adults. Children are more often rooted in specific local environments and they spend significant time at school. Prior studies have found that racial and ethnic minority and low-income children are overrepresented in schools with higher pollution levels. Increased exposure to air pollution at school is associated with negative health effects for students, as well as poorer academic performance and attendance. My research team has conducted several studies in this area of research and we are eager to accept a SPUR student to assist us in the next phase. This summer project aims to 1) characterize social inequalities in environmental exposures at Utah public schools; and 2) link those environmental exposures to standardized tests scores. We will bring together spatial data from the National Center for Education Statistics (i.e., public school demographics and locations for Utah), the Utah State Board of Education (i.e., standardized tests scores), the Environmental Protection Agency (i.e., ozone and particulate matter levels around schools), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (i.e., greenness around schools based on NDVI), and the US Department of Transportation (i.e., traffic and air noise around schools). We will create a school-level data set that joins together information from these varying sources, and then conduct statistical analysis on the dataset to address the two research aims.

Student Role

The student will lead the work described above, with guidance. The student will build the dataset, as described above. This involves downloading and cleaning data from a variety of sources and joining it together. Then, the student will analyze the data in SPSS, most likely using generalized estimating equations to account for clustered observations. Finally, the student would outline an academic research article and begin the process of writing parts of a paper (e.g., data, methods, results, introduction, literature review, discussion, and conclusion). The student will be guided in these tasks by Dr. Grineski, Dr. Collins and the larger team of research assistants and affiliated students at the U’s Center for Natural and Technological Hazards (CNTH). The team involves five graduate students in Sociology and Geography, along with a couple of undergraduates. The SPUR student would share an office space with the other students and work with them on a daily basis. These students will be key resources for the SPUR student. The SPUR student will not be left to struggle alone on research tasks, given the dynamics of our Center, the students’ linked projects, and our mentorship style. The student will attend weekly meetings with the entire team. In between weekly meetings, the SPUR student will meet with Dr. Grineski as needed for additional guidance on the project. The goal for this summer project is to turn it into a conference presentation and co-authored manuscript during the next academic year.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The SPUR student will learn a variety of useful socio-behavioral quantitative research skills during the summer. In terms of hands-on data skills, these include: downloading data, transferring data between formats, using ArcGIS to join spatial data together, running statistics in SPSS, learning how to statistically deal with clustered data and academic writing. In terms of content, the student will learn about the academic study of environmental injustice, children’s environmental health, more about public schools and standardized testing in Utah, and the developmental effects of air pollution on children. The student will also gain skills in conducting team-based interdisciplinary research and in informal professional communication of ideas over email and verbally during team meetings. Ultimately, the student will develop a greater understanding of the research process.

Sara Grineski

Environmental & Sustainability Studies Program
College of Social & Behavioral Science

My mentoring philosophy for undergraduates involves hands-on guidance (in collaboration with graduate student mentors), in-depth written feedback on academic writing, regular in-person contact through weekly meetings, and positive encouragement throughout the research process. The SPUR student should expect prompt responses from me. The SPUR student will also be paired with one graduate student mentor, to provide another point of contact. At the start of the summer, the student will create an individual development plan (IDP). After the student has reflected on their strengths, goals, and areas for improvement, we will meet to talk through the IDP and craft goals for the summer and the next academic year. At the end of the summer, we revisit the IDP and discuss plans for seeing the research through to publication. I have a strong track-record of mentoring undergraduate students in publishing research and plan to continue that with this SPUR student. To date, I have published 18 peer-reviewed papers that include undergraduate authors and10 of those papers are lead-authored by an undergraduate student. If the student is interested in graduate school, I am also an experienced mentor in preparing undergraduate students for success at the doctoral level. This involves traditional research mentoring, along with coaching regarding GRE preparations, selecting potential programs, contacting potential advisors, preparing a short CV, writing a statement of purpose, visiting programs, negotiating for funding offers, and maintaining a mentoring relationship with the undergraduate students while they are in graduate school.