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Ensuring Clean Air in the Classroom 

By Dan Lenzen, director of Design and Innovation
Students in the Design and Innovation program work on COVID-19-related projects.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, students in Design and Innovation asked, “What can we do to help?” In spring 2020, many students made door openers, bag carriers, face shields, plexiglass barriers and other touch-related items—practical projects for what society knew about the virus at the time. 

The research on how COVID-19 spreads has grown exponentially since March 2020. There are many articles about the historical reasons why the public focused on fomites (touchable objects carrying the virus) rather than aerosols (small, airborne particles that may not drop onto surfaces). Now we know that aerosols are a key component in widespread infection. With this knowledge, students shifted focus away from creating touch-related items to enhance classroom air quality.  

In partnership with Dr. Kim Prather, a UC San Diego professor and leading expert regarding aerosols, the school learned a simple way to measure clean air in the classrooms—CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels. Schools can have some of the most densely packed rooms in the country, more than a typical office building. The amount of CO2 present is a good indicator of how much previously-exhaled air is in the space in most rooms. Higher CO2 means more “recycled” air, which can mean high potential levels of COVID-19 aerosols. This is a vital measure for the safety of our school.
 
The Design and Innovation department discovered that CO2 sensors are easily accessible and programmable through basic electronic engineering knowledge. Conveniently, learning how to gather data from sensors is part of the electronics sensor unit in the Innovation Technology Studio class. Therefore, it is a skill many students have.

Across multiple classes, students took on various aspects of a large-scale air quality monitoring project:
  • Taylor Hansen ’23 in Advanced Application Development: Data collection
  • Daven Gujral ’21 in Advanced Design and Innovation: Efficient housing
  • John Guckian ’23 in 3D Modeling Flex & Innovation Tech Studio: 3D printed housing
  • The students of Innovation Tech Studio: Large production of CO2 Sensors

Prototypes have been installed with an LCD screen showing the CO2 parts per million (ppm) in various classrooms to gather feedback. For reference, outdoor air is just over 400 ppm, poorly ventilated classrooms and schools can reach 4,000 ppm. Therefore, anything below 800 ppm indicates very good ventilation for preventing COVID-19 spread. The school has discovered through multiple professional tests and school-created sensors that the air quality in LJCDS classrooms is spectacular—rarely reaching over 500ppm in most classrooms—due to the strong ventilation and filtration measures implemented by the operations department. 

Real design projects have real users testing the product. Therefore, Ms. Poliner’s Middle School science students will use the sensors to test the effectiveness of different fan configurations. Future projects will connect Upper School science and math with the sensors to run experimental and data science projects. 

Integrating vital learning objectives with real-world applications is the design and innovation program’s goal. The students’ work is shared through open-source development sites and educational channels to inspire greatness for a safer world. To follow the students’ methods or to create a sensor unit, the innovation department uploaded instructions to share online.

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