Georgia Tech Students Map Campus Air Quality

By Selena Perrin & Kelsey Abernathy

A group of students at the Georgia Institute of Technology have installed 15 wireless air quality sensors on Georgia Tech’s campus as part of the Kendeda Living Building Science VIP Course. The project aims to compare air quality in and around the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design to that of other campus buildings. However, the team quickly modified their goals and approach to capture potential changes in air quality related to the campus-wide shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The VIP team included Georgia Tech Undergraduates Madalene Henggeler, Caroline Miley, Ella Stewart, Kaylyn Sinisgalli, and Camila Sanchez working under the direction of Kim Cobb (Professor, Earth & Atmospheric Science & Director, Georgia Tech Global Change Program) and Russ Clark (Senior Research Scientist, Computer Science).

How did air quality change due to remote work and remote learning, how did it change when campus reopened? The team uses a low-cost commercially available sensor available from Purple Air that can be connected to the campus wireless network to relay real-time data. Second-year EAS student Ella Stewart explains, “We have monitors throughout campus, indoor and outdoor, and we are working to study trends in campus air quality”. The campus air quality sensor data can be viewed on the PurpleAir website here, where the data can be publicly accessed.

A map showing air quality sensors deployed across the Georgia Tech campus at the following locations. There are indoor sensors at Home Park, Boggs, and Brittain Dining. There is an outdoor sensor at the Aware Home, and there are both indoor and outdoor sensors at the Campus Recreation Center, Kendeda, the Clough Undergraduate Learning Center, North Avenue Dining, and Tech Square. On the rooftop of the ES&T building is the research monitor.
Ten locations in and near the Georgia Tech campus have been outfitted with air quality sensors.

Why air quality? “One of our main goals..is looking into equity” says Kaylyn Sinisgalli, a BS/MS student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Air quality is closely connected to public health and to social injustices, with studies indicating that many low-income communities of color have higher exposure to harmful air pollutants (EPA, 2019). However, many people are unaware of potential exposure risks, and decision-makers lack access to highly localized data that could help to identify and air quality hotspots. Bringing air monitoring tools to Georgia Tech’s campus creates potential for real-time, extensive monitoring over time, and opens the door to expanding the air quality mapping efforts across vulnerable communities in Atlanta. Campus partners, most notably Facilities staff, have responded with enthusiastic support for the project: “I have been surprised by how much our campus community desires this information….It’s really great to see that they want this data as much as we do”, Sinisgalli adds.

A small air quality sensor sits attached to an outdoor railing at the Aware Home in Home Park, with a view of the neighborhood street.
A small air quality sensor perches on a pantry in Home Park. Next to it are containers of rice and seasonings.
The team’s air quality monitor in Home Park captures changes in air quality from cooking, cleaning products, and other everyday activities. “As a part of our network, I have a monitor in my kitchen….it’s really interesting to see the spikes in air quality. Today, I had a fire alarm go off. I looked, and the air quality was spiking like crazy. I wouldn’t have thought about or known about this in the past.”

The most important messages the team wants to impart? “From construction zones, from buses, from new buses – I hope that we can make a connection between Georgia Tech and our actions here, and the air quality we see as a result of it…. Whether that’s keeping people informed about what campus air quality looks like so they can be more careful themselves, or pushing for initiatives that would reduce emissions on campus” Stewart says, “anything that would be tangible that helps the Georgia Tech community- that would be great. And we can do that.”

Explore air quality on campus, in Atlanta, and globally using the PurpleAir interactive map interface here.