A group of DeKalb County educators peered into a roped-off area at Stone Mountain Park. At first, the targets of their interest — several shoebox-sized plastic boxes with small pipes protruding from the ground — didn’t appear remarkable. But the boxes were important. They were measuring radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas in the soil.
The high school and middle school teachers were participating in a National Science Foundation program that could change the way we think about the air around us, according to Georgia State Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ashwin Ashok. He is co-principal investigator on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Signals in the Soil (SitS) radon project, which will develop a real-time radon test with a wireless sensor network deployed in metro Atlanta.
Radon has been cited as the second-leading cause of lung cancer, but some aren’t aware of its existence. Although it quickly dissipates into the atmosphere, it can lurk inside homes and sicken the occupants.
The group of teachers was capping off a week-long science outreach program for educators designed by Perimeter College science faculty members Samantha Andrews and Gladys Bolding. The two biology professors joined Ashok, along with Professor of Geosciences Dajun Dai and Perimeter College Professor of Life & Earth Sciences Pamela Gore, to help the group of DeKalb County educators bring “active science” into their classrooms in the form of the radon monitor observation project.
The week included collecting and testing soil samples at the Perimeter College Decatur Campus. Participants also used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to view metastatic cancerous lung tissues under a microscope. They investigated rotting logs to understand how the environment can affect species biodiversity. Teachers also spent time in the science labs at the Decatur Campus where Oculus virtual reality goggles took their scientific research to a new level.
The experience was important for instructors, Andrews said.
“Often in science, a lot of research we do doesn’t translate well to the public. We wanted to do something for teachers that adhered to Georgia curriculum standards, but also gave them hands-on experience to bring to the classroom,” Andrews said. “Everything we did during the week could be implemented in the classroom.”
Andrews said understanding radon and its potential effect on health is particularly important for students who live in the South DeKalb area, where the outcroppings of Stone Mountain, Panola Mountain and Arabia Mountain could produce higher readings.
As part of the research project, Perimeter student Racquel Riley joined a group canvasing neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta’s Collier Heights neighborhood.
“We went door to door on Saturdays this past summer asking people if they knew anything about radon, and if they knew it was the second-leading cause of lung cancer,” she said.
Students also asked residents if they would agree to put radon detectors in their homes. Those who agreed were also sent instructions that explain what to do if their home produces a high reading.
“Many of the residents had never heard of radon,” Riley said.
Towers High School science teacher Keisha Davis said she was happy she participated in the project.
“Although it is immersed in science, I think any teacher can benefit from learning about current research in our community and the effects of radon in South DeKalb and surrounding areas,” Davis said.
“The overall theme I learned during the week is the importance of understanding the intersectionality of science and technology, and the impact on concepts ranging from mathematics to social science. Most importantly, there is a need for diversity in STEM to begin in our school settings,” she added.
Andrews and Bolding hope they can continue the program next summer.
“Our hope is that we continue the radon project and have (high school) students from the area come to our campus,” Bolding said. “Eventually, we hope to have radon sensors deployed around the campus and have live data coming to us on what the radon levels are.”
Ashok expects that radon levels will one day be reported like humidity in the weather forecast.
“If you found out some element in nature was going to be affecting your health, you would want to know what steps to take to help mitigate it,” Ashok said.
Photo by Meg Buscema