Students and teachers of more than 20 Baltimore, Md., middle and high schools will be helping NASA scientists, and doctors and researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine to better understand the causes of pediatric asthma in Baltimore City. The students will be gathering data on aerosol particles that will help experts track particulates in relation to incidence of asthma.

“Asthma is one of the most common chronic illnesses that cause children to miss school, and Baltimore City school children suffer from some of the highest asthma rates in the country,” says Carol Blaisdell, Chief of Pediatric Pulmonology and Allergy at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Severe asthma events leading to hospitalization occur at much higher rates for children under the age of 18 in the fall more than during the rest of the year. Scientists believe this may, in part, be triggered by tiny airborne particles called aerosols.

The student’s portion of the research is called the Baltimore Student Sun photometer Network (BSSN). Each student participating in BSSN will go outside of their school daily and point a hand held instrument, known as a “Sun Photometer,” toward the Sun. These devices can determine the concentration and size of aerosols (or particles in the air) by using light from the electromagnetic spectrum. Smaller particles appear in the blue end of the spectrum, while the larger particles are seen in the red end of the spectrum. The students will take daily measurements of aerosols around Baltimore City beginning this spring and will continue to collect data over the course of this calendar year.

“The data will be included as part of a larger study to identify the environmental triggers of pediatric asthma in Baltimore,” said Elissa Levine, the lead scientist on the project, who works in the Biospheric Sciences Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “This co-operative effort is not only beneficial to our research, but will also benefit the students. It will enhance their science, math, and technology skills and improve their understanding of their local environment.”

“We are excited about participating because collection of authentic data is an important part of modern science instruction,” said Andrea Bowden, Supervisor of Science and Health Education for the Baltimore City Public School System.

The BSSN will be the first city-wide network ever established to monitor small-scale changes in the quantity of aerosol particles in a layer of atmosphere over a metropolitan area. The network will be scientifically and geographically supported by a full-scale Sun Photometer located on the roof of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore that is part of NASA’s AERONET (AEosol RObotic NETwork) program.

Just like the full-scale Sun Photometer, the hand held “student” instruments will provide information about the quantity and particle size of aerosols in the air using bands from the electromagnetic spectrum. The student readings will provide a first time look at how aerosols are spread out across the city, and be compared with the Sun Photometer readings at the Maryland Science Center location.

Brent Holben, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard, leads the AERONET program, a series of ground-based remote sensing Sun photometers that measure aerosols globally. NASA and various federal agencies, universities and institutes around the world have established these ground-stations.

Holben said, “In addition to helping to collect data for the asthma project, the aerosol data that the students collect using hand-held devices will be used to verify the accuracy of data NASA collects from instruments aboard NASA’s Terra satellite.”

Terra looks at aerosols from space down to Earth, while this project looks at them from the Earth up toward space. The student network acts as a double-check for the aerosol data gathered by the satellite and the full-scale photometer, and the first time this check will be made across a local area. The hand-held Sun photometers are on loan from the USDA Forest Service, who uses them to measure air quality after forest fires.

This study is funded through NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The aerosol data that is being used to identify environmental asthma triggers is funded under NASA’s “Healthy Planet: Earth Science and Public Health” program.

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