Search for solutions: Dr. Hurst works with students to monitor air quality

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Dr. Hurst works with seniors Timothy Chen, Hannah Lee and Lucas Choi to install Purpleair sensors.

What inspires a Spanish teacher and a group of seniors to work together? Their passion for the environment and the study of it.

Irvine High Spanish teacher, Darin Hurst, in collaboration with seniors Saalar Behbani, Timothy Chen, Lucas Choi, Hannah Lee and Bryan Liu are spearheading a study on microclimates within Irvine. Hurst’s interest in microclimates first began when he grew tired of cross-country practices getting canceled due to the poor air quality. A concerned and frustrated coach, Hurst decided to conduct research on how air quality in Orange County was being measured.

“I suspected that the data on air quality was not very accurate due to the unique geography of the city,” Hurst said. “After doing some detective work, I realized that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only had two sensors in the county and that they were simply extrapolating data from Anaheim and Mission Viejo.”

Due to his discovery about the lack of accurate data on air quality, Hurst was inspired to do a study and set up various meetings on Zoom with the Air Quality Management Board, as well as Dr. Alex Guenther, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who is a leading researcher on ecosystems. Through these meetings, Hurst was able to acquire air sensors and focus his study on microclimates.

“Studying the microclimate focuses on how elements like vegetation, small bodies of water and structures affect the climate,” Chen said. “Specifically, in our study we are focusing on the urban microclimate of the school which focuses on how urban structures influence the climate on a micro scale.”

Hurst, who had won an award for environmental research in his youth, was inspired to create an opportunity for students to take part in a scientific study.

“I asked all the science teachers, but they said they were busy,” Hurst said. “Then I thought, we’ll make it a club instead. However, with COVID-19 we had a pretty volatile year. We didn’t get an actual chance to place air sensors.”

Despite the lack of success at first, after hearing about the study from AP Environmental Science teacher, Bre Eagleson, the seniors approached Hurst about participating.

“Dr. Hurst proposed this idea last year. I remember in my junior year that Mrs. Eagleson had told us about it, but a lot of seniors were not interested,” Lee said. “Fortunately, this year, as a senior, a lot of my friends who are taking the class were, so we decided to take on the project in the hopes of contributing to our school.”

Working with friends and fellow AP Environmental Science students, Lee, Behbani, Chen, Choi and Liu, along with Hurst, have worked diligently on the study since November. Along the way, the team has encountered some technical struggles in their research.

“We are struggling to find good locations for the air sensors,” Choi said. “They need to be placed where there is a power source, internet connection and also can not be easily stolen.”

In addition to the study’s main focus of studying microclimates’ effects on air quality, the team also hopes to shed light on another main issue: health equity.

“We hope to demonstrate how air quality sensors can be integrated into monitoring air pollution at schools. Air quality is an important factor in our health and that varies within the microclimate,” Chen said. “We hope to expand our impact by partnering with UC Irvine and applying for grant funding to allow all schools in Irvine to engage in student-led projects about the environment and health.”