Durham faculty head UNL team securing EPA grant to study K-12 school indoor environments

Durham faculty head UNL team securing EPA grant to study K-12 school indoor environments

Calendar Icon Jan 15, 2015      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Three UNL Architectural Engineering faculty – (from left) professors Clarence Waters and Lily Wang and assistant professor Josephine Lau – are teaming with Jim Bovaird (right), associate professor of educational psychology, on a four-year EPA grant to study indoor environmental factors and their effects on the scholastic achievement of students from kindergarten through 12th grade. (Photo by Greg Nathan, University Communications)
Three UNL Architectural Engineering faculty – (from left) professors Clarence Waters and Lily Wang and assistant professor Josephine Lau – are teaming with Jim Bovaird (right), associate professor of educational psychology, on a four-year EPA grant to study indoor environmental factors and their effects on the scholastic achievement of students from kindergarten through 12th grade. (Photo by Greg Nathan, University Communications)
Most of America's children live the greatest portions of their days either at home or in school.

And while much is known about the impact of home environments on childhood development, little scientific data exists about how America's school buildings effect the academic development of children.

A UNL team, led by three faculty from The Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction and a faculty member from the College of Education and Human Sciences, has secured a $998,433 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's Healthy Schools initiative for a four-year study of indoor environmental factors and their effects on the scholastic achievement of students from kindergarten through 12th grade. It is one of seven grants totaling close to $6 million that the EPA is funding through this initiative.

Lily Wang, professor of Architectural Engineering and College of Engineering associate dean for graduate programs and faculty development, had previously studied how the acoustics of school environments effect the scholastic achievement of elementary school students. The Healthy Schools initiative provides an opportunity to expand that work, but her research team only learned of the EPA grant four weeks before proposals were due.

"I had long been thinking that there are people down the hall from me who are doing lighting studies and thermal and indoor air-quality studies. Wouldn't it be great if we could do an integrated investigation where we survey all of these aspects of the indoor environment simultaneously, similar to what I did on acoustics, correlating the assorted building conditions to actual student performance outcomes?" Wang said.

"When we found the research solicitation, we were completely excited, even though the deadline was so close. The topic is such a good fit for our research group because it pulls on our combined strengths at The Durham School, where we have expertise in all of these core disciplines."

The research staff on this grant includes Durham professor Clarence Waters (with expertise in lighting and power distribution systems) and assistant professor Josephine Lau (with expertise in building mechanical systems, particularly thermal conditions and indoor air quality). In the last few years, Dr. Lau had carried out community projects in different school districts by using EPA IAQ TfS (Tools for Schools). She also studied indoor air quality in schools with a research project focused on bio-aerosols monitoring with and without air-cleaners in elementary classrooms and their relationships to student's absenteeism.

The grant is housed within the Nebraska Center for Research on Youth, Family and Schools (CYFS), which submitted the proposal. Jim Bovaird, associate professor of educational psychology and a faculty member of CYFS, brings his experience in designing experiments for school-based settings and in analyzing the data.

"The Durham School faculty members provide the technical expertise for the research, but having Dr. Bovaird on the team is really the key," Wang said. "He will be instrumental in applying more sophisticated data analyses to the data we collect, so that we can investigate how these environmental conditions interact with each other. Which environmental variables have greater impact? How do these effects vary with different student demographic groups? There's a lot of statistics involved to get at these answers."

Statistical analyses will indeed be key in the first year of the study, which Wang said will mostly focus on "mining" a publicly available database on student achievement in the state of California. That data will be connected to information gathered through the state's High Performance Incentive Grant program, which funded new 'green' school building construction and renovations of existing buildings over the past decade. The UNL group hopes to find patterns that could help in preparing their study of schools in four local communities.

In years two and three, three Nebraska public school districts (Lincoln, Papillion-La Vista and Gretna) and the Council Bluffs, Iowa, district, have agreed to allow the researchers to monitor their classroom environments and to provide student achievement data.

Wang said the final year will include figuring out what the group learned. As part of a community engagement plan, Nebraska-based architecture and engineering firm DLR Group will take the results and consider how it can implement those findings in future school building and renovation projects. DLR Group is known locally for having designed Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln and nationally as one of the nation's top school-design firms.

Bovaird is most experienced in creating school-based behavioral interventions for reading and counselling programs. He said he's excited about this project because of the opportunity it presents for unique outcomes and applications.

"I'm an analyst. I haven't worked with these types of engineering-related measurements or manipulations, per se," Bovaird said. "But when I heard that the Durham School faculty were interested in this project, it was just putting two and two together and figuring that this might be a logical fit with my experience."

Wang said she believes the results of this project will make a big difference in schools.

"We expect this to be a really high-impact project. In an era when the hot topics in engineering are typically related to nanotechnology or biomedical engineering, we're thrilled that the EPA is actually funding work on the indoor environments that we're staying in every day and how that impacts our children," Wang said.