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Blog 227

Blog 227

Alternative Assessments in NATS1515: Atmospheric Pollution

By Stephanie Domenikos

In this two-part blog, Dr. Domenikos discusses an alternative assessment strategy - using authentic data sets to engage in the scientific method - in the context of a large first-year natural science course.

As an instructor of Natural Science courses (general education science courses for non-science majors), I am constantly looking for ways for my students to see the applicability of the lecture material and understand its real-world context. NATS1515: Atmospheric Pollution (current enrolment is 175 students) is a first-year general science course focused on studying the environmental and health impacts of air pollutants humans are releasing into the atmosphere. To engage my students with atmospheric pollution events, I am always on the hunt for publicly accessible air pollution data sets that my students can use to define their own scientific questions, apply what they learn in lecture to analyze the data, and draw their own conclusions. Luckily, in the field of environmental pollution/chemistry, publicly accessible data and models are quite common and available for download and use, particularly by MOECC and NCAR-ACOM.

What is MOECC and NCAR-ACOM?

MOECC is the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Canada. The MOECC has a network of 39 outdoor air monitoring stations set up across the province that collect real-time air pollution data (such as concentrations of nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM2.5­) and ground-level ozone (O3). These pollutant concentrations are communicated to the public every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at

NCAR-ACOM is the National Center for Atmospheric Research – Atmospheric Chemistry Observations and Modeling. ACOM research focuses on advancing understanding and predictive capacity for atmospheric composition and related processes. On their website, ACOM makes publicly available a Quick TUV Calculator model that allows the user to change the a variety of input parameters (such as concentration of ozone in the Ozone Layer) to understand the amount of radiation reaching the surface of the Earth. 

What did you have the students do?

I used the MOECC data and the NCAR-ACOM model to create two alternative assessments that students in NATS1515 complete as take-home assignments.

With the MOECC data, I have students analyze the impact of COVID-19 on air quality in the Greater Toronto Area. Students analyze the pollutant concentrations on a summer day in 2019 (pre-Covid lockdown), 2020 (during the COVID lockdown) and 2022 (post-COVID lockdown) to help make connections between the activities of humans and emission of air pollutants. Students downloaded data from the website, created graphs in Excel/Google Sheets and analyzed their results to draw conclusions and make connections to what was taught in lecture.

With the NCAR-ACOM model, I have students run the Quick TUV calculator with different input concentrations of stratospheric ozone (the compound that protect the surface of Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun). Students run the calculator multiple times with different concentrations of ozone, download the resultant data, and again make graphs in Excel/Google sheets to draw conclusions and make connections.

What learning did the students do from this project?

In lecture, NATS1515 students learn about the pollutants that come from vehicles and other sources that impact air quality in the GTA. Furthermore, they learn about the chemical reactions that destroy stratospheric ozone and contribute to the formation of the ozone hole. Both of these processes that are described with theory in lecture. These alternative assessments help students to really connect with the material and gain a deeper understanding of the impact humans are having on the environment. From their analysis of MOECC data, they can clearly see the impact of having fewer cars on the road and people working from home (during the COVID lockdown) had on air quality in the city. Furthermore, by running the TUV calculator, they gain a better understand the important role that stratospheric ozone plays in the protection of humans from sun’s harmful radiation. These assessments help students connect with lecture material and gain an appreciation of the lecture concepts presented in class.

Beyond the lessons students learn from working with MOECC data or TUV model, in both these assessments students work with Excel/Google Sheets to graph the data, something many of my NATS students have little/no experience with. Through recorded video tutorials that are posted to eClass, I walk students through the steps of graphing data in Excel and even writing a function to execute an equation. These skills that students gain in this course can be used in other courses in their undergraduate career or even in their personal life (e.g. the use of Excel as a budget planner).

Things you learned/would do differently next time? Take-award for other instructors?

While I think the alternative assessments I ran this year add value to my course, what I found missing was an in-class discussion to accompany the at-home work, and an opportunity for students to work with their peers in class. Therefore, next time I use these alternative assessments I plan on dedicating either 0.5 or 1 lecture to discuss as a class the findings from the students’ analyses, provide students with the opportunity to discuss their findings with their peers, and understand lessons learned from the conclusions they have drawn from their assessments.

For other educators interested in using these databases for use in their classes, I have found them incredibly user friendly and very easily to extract data for analysis. Excel certainly does not need to be used however I appreciated the added value that the students gain from being introduced to this program. The MOECC website can be used to access pollutant data and air quality data at sites all across Ontario. The NCAR-ACOM offers a variety of community models (like the TUV calculator) that can be accessed for free (at this site).

About the Author

My name is Stephanie Domenikos and I completed my PhD in Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Toronto with my research focused on elucidating sources of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the Greater Toronto Area. I subsequently completed a Chemistry Education focused post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto Mississauga where I initiated a variety of service-learning projects for first-year Chemistry students. I now have the pleasure of being an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in the Division of Natural Science (Department of STS) and am passionate about delivering a Chemistry and Science education that is accessible, inspiring, and motivating. Currently, I teach a variety of Chemistry-focused NATS courses (including NATS1830: Mysteries of Everyday Materials, NATS1512: Environmental Pollution and NATS1515: Atmospheric Pollution) as well as first-year Chemistry courses (CHEM1000/1001: Chemical Structure/Dynamics).