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Bethel Park students collaborate on radon-testing project

Testing for radon comes with the possibility of producing numbers you don’t exactly want to see.

“Luckily, none of our houses in Bethel were above the actionable levels that the EPA sets,” Neil Armstrong Middle School teacher Joe Rosi said, “which is awesome.”

As part of a project involving collaboration with Bethel Park High School students, Rosi’s fifth-graders conducted tests at their homes, determining if any exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold at which corrective action should be taken. For the record, and for aspiring scientists, that’s four picocuries per liter.

“We have kids who already have abatement systems that exist in their houses,” Rosi said. “They didn’t know what they had them for, and now they know.”

Beyond the peace-of-mind component was a lesson in statistical analysis. The Neil Armstrong students entered the measured radon levels into spreadsheets, then took them to the high school on May 25 for further elucidation about what kinds of stories the numbers can tell.

“We got this data the other day, and we took it and tried to figure out what visualization we could do to show them what they collected,” junior Kayla Dell explained. “So we got to figure out how to make a map, and we came in today to show them what to do with it.”

She was one of the students in science teacher Lee Cristofano’s big data class to help the fifth-graders create representations of where to find various levels of radon in their neighborhoods, using ArcGIS, a cloud-based mapping platform.

“They were so very excited to do it,” Kayla said. “They all wanted to see where their houses were on the map, so that was fun, too.”

For the project, Cristofano secured free testing kits from the American Lung Association.

“We thought, what better way for the students to generate their own data sets, not just on their own personal level, but then we can take a look at that all through their community,” he said. “When you put that graphically on a map of their community, where they live on their streets, we’re hoping that they can see a pattern.”

He and Rosi came up with the idea for the project after attending a two-week program last summer at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, the acronym standing for Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment.

Eric Darsow, a team member for the CREATE Lab’s Fluency Project – the initiative explores how technology and data can serve as tools to enhance the voices of students and teachers – was on hand to observe the Bethel Park project and explain the relevance of that and similar efforts.

“It’s not just having a map,” he said. “It’s, what do you do with the map? What can you say to your parents, the community, the EPA about these numbers? That’s our long-term vision.”

Rosi explained how the project was conducted.

“We tried to make it as kid-independent as possible,” he said. “They did the tests. They were responsible for recording that information, informing their parents and creating a presentation that explains the abatement process.”

Similar projects could follow this year’ pilot in the future.

“Ultimately,” Rosi said, “what we want to do is make this more of a sustainable activity.”

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