SPUR 2021: Understanding indoor air quality with low-cost sensors


More than 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality does not meet health standards. Indoor and outdoor air pollution cause serious adverse health effects, such as asthma, heart disease, cognitive impairment, and premature mortality. Recently studies have identified an increased risk of mortality due to COVID-19 in regions with elevated particulate air pollution and identified COVID-19 genetic material on air pollution particles. Indoor air quality is particularly important because most individuals spend over 80% of their time indoors. The goals of this project are twofold. First, the students will fabricate and test air quality sensors for measuring indoor air quality in the homes of 10 families living on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. These sensors will include digital and color-coded displays. Second, students will study how hosting sensors changes families’ exposure experiences, including their perceptions and behaviors. The exposure experience encapsulates the nexus between embodied health experiences and scientific understandings of pollutant exposures that influence decision-making regarding the management of risks. Students will: fabricate indoor air pollution sensors; conduct pre- and post-sensor installation interviews with the 10 families; administer surveys to families via a mobile app; analyze indoor air quality data; identify sources of air pollution and barriers to reducing exposures in families’ homes; and advise families on how to mitigate air pollution in their homes. This interdisciplinary research project will provide students with opportunities to construct sensors and conduct social science research and help local families improve indoor air quality.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. Applicants must be University of Utah students who identify in one or more of the following ways (defined by the National Institutes of Health): Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinxs, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

Student Role

Students’ will have the opportunity to be part of a dynamic interdisciplinary team involving Dr. Kerry Kelly (Chemical Engineering), Dr. Tony Butterfield (Chemical Engineering), Dr. Sara Grineski (Sociology), Dr. Tim Collins (Geography), and doctoral student Casey Mullen (Sociology). The students will have a key role in this project. Specifically they will:

  • Fabricate and test the air pollution sensors under the guidance of Dr. Kelly and Dr. Butterfield. This will enable students to learn the sensors’ operating principles and possible malfunctions.
  • Develop standard operating procedures and trouble-shooting guidelines for the sensors.
  • Assist with conducting and transcribing of interviews with the 10 families before and after they receive their sensor.
  • Assist with the collection survey data from the families using a mobile app.
  • Analyze the air quality data, specifically particulate matter, after return of the sensors.
  • Identify primary sources of particulate matter air pollution in the families’ homes and barriers the families face in mitigating pollution from those sources.
  • Research locally-relevant solutions to addressing sources of indoor air quality problems affecting the families and share that information with the families.

Students who are fluent in Spanish are especially encouraged to apply.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

By the end of the experience, the students will be able to:

  • Operate a 3d printer.
  • Demonstrate a familiarity with microelectronics.
  • Fabricate and test an air quality sensor.
  • Operate air quality measurement equipment.
  • Demonstrate data analysis skills including calculating measurement statistics and detecting outliers.
  • Develop standard operating procedures.
  • Conduct interviews and surveys.
  • Work with local families to identify and solve indoor air quality problems.

The students will gain an understanding of the research process and how interdisciplinary research works. They will learn about how to conduct research within an IRB approved protocol. The experience will increase their competitiveness for graduate school.

Remote Contingency Plan

This project will be flexible to COVID-19 restrictions and is designed to minimize the students’ on-campus time. In the event that the SPUR/HAPPIEST students are not permitted to perform any research on campus due to COVID-19, Drs. Kelly and Butterfield will have their existing students fabricate and test the sensors. We will conduct the pre- and post-interviews over video chat software or the telephone. Students can transcribe interviews remotely. Students can administer surveys to families remotely using the app. Through the interviews and surveys, students can assess likely sources of air pollution in families’ homes as well as the barriers families face in mitigating air pollution from those sources. They can also deliver information about reducing indoor air pollution to the families via video chat software, the telephone, or through a flyer. Students can conduct data analysis through remote desktop applications.

Kerry Kelly
Assistant Professor

Chemical Engineering
College of Engineering
Global Change and Sustainability Center

Dr. Kelly’s (project lead) mentoring philosophy emphasizes helping students develop a set of technical and communication skills that will enable them to pursue their ultimate career interests. Dr. Butterfield and Dr. Kelly have a strong track record of co-authoring peer-reviewed publications with undergraduate researchers, as do Drs. Collins and Grineski. The mentoring activities will include:

  • Weekly team meetings.
  • Hands-on training in the use of 3d printers and sensor fabrication.
  • Hands-on training in the use of air-quality instrumentation for calibrating the air-quality sensors.
  • Working collaboratively to develop and conduct interviews and an app-based survey.
  • Training in data analysis techniques.
  • Assistance in identifying venues for presenting the research results.
  • Developing strategies to present the results.