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Science Museum of Virginia Awarded Grant to Empower “Citizen Scientists”

The Museum will lead a team of residents, government officials, nonprofits, business owners and health system partners to develop a plan to assess air quality (how clean or polluted air is) in the area immediately surrounding the Museum’s 33-acre urban campus.,

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The Science Museum of Virginia will be working with volunteer “citizen scientists” to analyze and suggest ways that we can all breathe a little easier. This is happening as the result of a nearly $250,000 grant.

Full Press Release:

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has awarded the Science Museum of Virginia a nearly $250,000 grant to lead volunteer teams of “citizen scientists” to assess and guide improvements to air quality in Richmond neighborhoods over the next three years. The federal funds further the Museum’s efforts both to understand how a warming climate impacts Richmond, including the health of residents, and to engage citizens in the process of collecting and interpreting environmental data.

“Our personal health is intimately linked to the health of the environment,” said Chief Wonder Officer Richard Conti. “We’re thrilled to get support from IMLS to further empower community partners and neighbors to use scientific tools to better understand our air quality at the hyperlocal level. Through these collaborative efforts, we will explore the backyard impacts of global climate change and provide citizens with information to help them build more resilient communities.”

The Museum will lead a team of residents, local and state government officials, nonprofits, business owners and health system partners to develop a plan to assess air quality (how clean or polluted air is) in the area immediately surrounding the Museum’s 33-acre urban campus, which includes the rapidly changing Scott’s Addition neighborhood. Volunteers will use hand-held devices to measure a variety of pollutants in the local atmosphere, building on pilot work with collaborators at Virginia Commonwealth University Division of Community Engagement, the University of Richmond and Virginia Union University. The Museum will also use part of the $249,631 grant funds to partner with Groundwork RVA to measure air quality in select limited-resource areas across Richmond.

Poor air quality can exacerbate allergy symptoms, aggravate asthma, inhibit lung function and contribute to diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema. While the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality measures air quality just outside of the metro Richmond region, neighborhood-specific data, which could vary greatly depending on the amount of impervious surfaces, transportation hubs, housing density and green spaces, is not available.

“Before we co-develop strategies to mitigate the risks of climate change on our city, we have to fill important data gaps,” said Museum Scientist and grant co-principal investigator Dr. Jeremy Hoffman. “As we’ve seen from previous projects, acquiring those data with community partners fosters deeper understanding and engagement with solutions. By empowering citizens to get out there and measure these environmental stressors themselves with the necessary tools, we can generate meaningful outcomes together.”

The information collected in both of the proposal’s community-based studies will inform neighborhood-specific solutions and broader community sustainability plans. Actively engaging citizens in this process will deepen participants’ understanding of science, and contribute to research-based solutions that improve the well-being of the community.

“The City of Richmond is excited to be part of this collaborative effort that enables residents who are most affected by local climate impacts to participate in citizen science projects,” said City of Richmond Sustainability Manager Alicia Zatcoff. “The valuable information citizens collect will help inform the city’s RVAgreen 2050 equity-centered climate action initiative and benefit our entire community.”

The Museum first led a “citizen science” campaign in 2017 when teams of volunteers measured air temperatures around Richmond during an extreme heat wave. This “urban heat island” assessment helped scientists, policymakers and public health professionals better understand the effects of extreme heat, which is exacerbated by climate change and urban design, at the hyperlocal level. In addition, the effort raised questions about other factors that can intensify with a warming climate, such as spikes in heat related illnesses, particularly in limited-resource neighborhoods.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman sharing the urban heat island data with Congressman Donald McEachin at a 2017 event at the Science Museum of Virginia – Photo Credit: Science Museum of Virginia

Since the urban heat island data was collected two years ago, the Museum has worked to share and contextualize the information in easy-to-understand visual ways. In the coming years, the Museum plans to do the same with the air quality data the teams collect through this IMLS-supported project.

“Our previous citizen science efforts show that participants better understand the role science plays in their day-to-day decisions if they are part of the collaborative process,” said Hoffman. “We value hands-on boots-on-the-ground opportunities that offer citizens the chance to contribute to the science capital in our community, and appreciate that IMLS sees the value in that, also. The funding of this important project is an example of how we can all work together—at the local, regional, state and federal level—to improve the livability of our city and health of our neighbors.”

Scientists Vivek Shandas and Jeremy Hoffman training volunteers for the citizen science urban heat island campaign. – Photo Credit: Jeremy Hoffman

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services MA-20-19-0255-19.

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.