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Ozone Level Collection Gives Students Firsthand Field Research Experience By Janet Miranda

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Before the impact of ozone levels on air quality and human health were widely known, Houston was known for some of the worst air quality in the nation. The growing emissions from traffic, refineries, petrochemical facilities and other industrial sources contributed to the smoggy air.

Today, Houston has expanded in not only in sheer size and industry opportunities, but also in environmental awareness. Robert Talbot, director of the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science (ICAS) and professor of atmospheric chemistry and climate, aims to instill environmental consciousness into students in his Aerosols and Climate class, a mix of seniors and first-year doctoral students in environmental science.

“During 2000, the ozone was a tremendous problem in the Houston area. We were producing hundreds of parts per billion per hour,” Talbot said. “New regulations on the highly reactive emissions from compounds from all the petrochemical processes around the city and the flushing of the air around the coast by a more vigorous sea breeze is facilitating the cleaning up of our air.”

That doesn’t mean ozone isn’t a problem anymore. Scientists are struggling to understand the role climate change plays on air pollution and ozone.

Students in Talbot’s course have been participating in an opportunity for field research -- right here on campus -- measuring ozone levels on top of Agnes Arnold Hall, hidden behind the bushes at ground level, or next to the Cullen Fountain, then collecting and analyzing the data. The students use state-of-the-art handheld meters, provided with funds with the UH Provost’s Office to help provide research experiences for students.

The six miniature ozone meters, valued at $5,000 dollars each, were bought by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to give upper level students a crash course in field research.

Talbot strives to give his students hand-on experiences, so they learn the basics of conducting research.

Talbot sees the importance of teaching students to conduct research, saying it’s important for students to know how to take measurements on their own, gather data and then go through the process of analyzing the data.

It’s a good thing, as nothing prepares young scientists for the experience of field research as much as practice.

“We had some accidents the first time around, a student accidentally sucked some water into the instrument. We were able to dry it out, and it worked fine the next day. These things happen. They happen in real life too,” Talbot said.

The ozone research project gave the students an opportunity for increased engagement as they transferred what they learned in the lectures into the real world.

“The students like the hands-on experience. It’s a big attraction,” Talbot said.

Talbot plans to continue using the ozone meters in his fall Atmospheric Chemistry class, allowing students to do more with the ozone meters as their knowledge increases.