Empowering Students in Low Income Communities to Address Air Quality Issues

Motivation: Youth and seniors in communities identified by California Air Resources Board (CARB) as disadvantaged have higher incidence of respiratory illness than the general population. It is widely accepted that one cause of this higher incidence is related to the poorer air quality associated with these communities. Low-cost sensors give us an opportunity to make local air quality measurements, even at the personal level, to gain a better insight into this issue.

In a September 2021 blog post titled, “Unhealthy Air May Threaten Educational Outcomes” the Public Policy Institute of California reports, “Exposure to air pollution is already a concern for children’s health, and a sizable link may exist between academic achievement and air quality.

Objective: SSV is exploring this hypothesis by using expert driven local measurements of air quality (AQ) with community involvement using low-cost sensors. Our completed projects, called Smart-TA and the Clean Air Equity Pilot (CQEP), involved low-cost sensor nodes in a high-risk community to determine the impact of traffic congestion on air quality at a sub-grid scale. Our current project, called Youth Air Quality Advocates (YAQA), seeks to empower high school students to learn more about their environments and impact public policy that affects their well-being.

Youth Air Quality Advocates (YAQA)

“This is an incredible program...we could not teach these important lessons without your support!” - Dr. Ali, Andrew Hill HS.

YAQA Program Highlights

  • YAQA has completed one year (2 semesters) in San Jose!
  • SSV has held 2 teacher workshops and trained 30 teachers
  • Diverse mix of grades (9-12), subjects (bio, chem, phy), school types(regular, special ed)
  • Number of participating high schools: 9
  • Number of participating teachers: 10
  • Number of students engaged: 907

Program Details

In 2022 Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV), in partnership with TD Environmental Services, LLC, was awarded a CARB Community Air Grant to fund the Youth Air Quality Advocates (YAQA) program in San Jose. YAQA will demonstrate local community advocacy, advance environmental justice initiatives, and engage students in challenging STEM-based activities geared toward air pollution, citizen science, and civic action. Successful environmental education programs rely not only on classroom learning but also developing personal connections to the subject matter, helping students understand the issue’s relevance to their lives as well as their agency to address current environmental issues through action.

Story Schwantes leads a teacher workshop at San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.

The two-year YAQA project will target high school students who attend schools in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District, serving disadvantaged and low-income communities as designated by the CARB California Climate Investments Priority Populations tool. Teachers and students will utilize the SSV-developed BackpAQ mobile air quality monitor, which features particulate, CO2, temperature and humidity sensors. 

The YAQA project trains teachers and engages students in a hands-on curriculum designed to educate participants about pollution, enable them to build their own BackpAQ low-cost air sensors, and then guide them to understand how local conditions and policies affect air pollution and empower them to affect changes in their communities. The suggested air quality curriculum and associated experiments use particulate matter and CO2 sensors in activity-based learning to make air quality more concrete for students.

Students collect and analyze data using cutting-edge data science and analytics tools, present their findings to the greater San Jose community at community meetings, libraries, houses of worship, City Council meetings, etc., and propose solutions to the observed problem.

BackpAQ App


SSV Labs BackpAQ sensor

A low cost, mobile sensor was developed by Sustainable Silicon Valley’s Labs. It was developed to facilitate low cost, community-based PM air quality measurement and for student and classroom use.  It measures PM, CO2, temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and GPS coordinates. It’s battery-powered, lightweight, and is designed to be clipped on a backpack or attached to a belt or bicycle.

Sensor data is uploaded once per minute in JSON format to a cloud-based time-series database. The data can be read in real time on the device, on a smart phone using the Blynk IoT app, or on AQView, as web-based data acquisition and display system developed by SSVLabs.

Easy-to-build kits and accompanying instructions are available to those who choose to construct their own instruments.

The measurements are not meant to meet federal reference standards but are meant to give reasonably accurate data that can be compared between instruments. To this end SSV intercalibrates its sensors in a specially built facility shown at right. Typically uncorrected raw data is within about 10% of our designated ‘golden’ sensor. Calibration coefficients are determined based on these tests.

AQ Lab 1
Air sensor installed

To further demonstrate the fidelity of these sensors SSV has embarked on an extended colocation field test at a BAAQMD site on Jackson St. in San Jose. We have collocated two of our BackpAQ sensors, a PurpleAir and a Vaisala AQT530. All sensors measure PM and state variables. The BackpAQ also measures CO2. The AQT30 also measures CO, NO, NO2, and O3. 

What’s Next?

As the second program year kicks off in September 2023, YAQA has set ambitious goals for further evolution and broadening its impact:

    • Grow Student Participation: YAQA aims to expand its reach to over 2,500 students in the entire East Side Union High School District, San Jose.
    • Grow Teacher Participation: YAQA is plan to double the number of teachers trained to implement the YAQA curriculum to 17, ensuring even more educators can educate and empower their students about air pollution.
    • Grow School Participation: YAQA is striving for 100% participation from the five remaining high schools in the ESUHSD district, ensuring that no school is left behind in learning about air quality issues.
    • Grow Ecosystem: Involve students from diverse disciplines, including journalism, arts, biology, and more. This will make the program more inclusive and expand the audience learning about air quality concepts through a variety of lenses.
    • Enhanced Workforce Development: YAQA will work to promote STEM career paths and provide relevant skill-building opportunities, career exposure, and even local job opportunities.
    • Student outreach to communities and policy makers
    • Scout for additional sponsors so that we can continue the YAQA program and expand to other school districts in 2025 and beyond.


We thank teachers, students and staff of San Jose’s East Side Union High School District for their outstanding support for this project. This project is funded by California Climate Investments under the AB617 Community Air Grant Program.


Aboud, Laurel, Lafortune, Julian, and Char, Paulette. “Unhealthy Air May Threaten Educational Outcomes” Public Policy Institute of California, Blog Post (9/16/21)

Kollmuss, Anja, and Julian Agyeman. “Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?.” Environmental education research 8.3 (2002): 239-260.

Hungerford, Harold R., and Trudi L. Volk. “Changing learner behavior through environmental education.” The journal of environmental education 21.3 (1990): 8-21.

Pooley, Julie Ann, and Moira O’Connor. “Environmental education and attitudes: Emotions and beliefs are what is needed.” Environment and behavior 32.5 (2000): 711-723.