Incorporating Operation Healthy Air into a Course Curriculum: A Case Example for Earth Sciences

By Prof. Karen McReynolds

Getting students interested and keeping them interested in what science is and the process of science can be a real challenge. Citizen science projects, where students collect or process real data offer a great way to do that. Professor Karen McReynolds of Hope International University works with lower division, non-science-major college students built a curriculum to enable her students to produce meaningful, useful data supporting Operation Healthy Air (OHA) as a class project. As a result, some of the best maps for OHA were produced and students participated in a real-world science experience relevant to the communities where they live.


Until recently, students in Prof. McReynolds class would complete a research project and make a poster for their Earth Science project, but the project results would remain remote from the real world (at least in their eyes); “it’s just another academic exercise.” Working with OHA and interpreting neighborhood green, blue, and gray space from above via the Habitat Network tool offered them a much more tangible connection to real life. Creating a project for students to participate in OHA gave a way to very concretely anchor their Earth Science coursework to their experience as residents of the Los Angeles area.


Prof. McReynolds first initiation to Earthwatch’s citizen science programs was having students in her biology courses collect data on trees for Operation Resilient Trees. Having seen successful adoption and interest by her students in citizen science, Prof. McReynolds was ready to try OHA, which offered a good fit for Earth Science students with its focus on discovering how differences in the environment affect local air quality and temperature.


Project Curriculum

OHA had already assembled a significant amount of temperature and ozone data from various locations in the Inland Empire of Southern California by early fall of 2017. Mapping of local habitats around each sensor to determine how different environments (i.e., habitats) influence local air quality was still needed. OHA adopted the Habitat Network citizen science tool ( developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy. In order to offer students a large enough assignment to merit its label as a project (not simply another class assignment), Prof. McReynolds developed a project description that included three main components:


  1. Introduction
  2. Map Creation: two practice and three based on actual OHA sensor locations
  3. Conclusion



The introduction set the stage for the students and was the research component of the class project. Students were asked: “What is the value of Operation Healthy Air? You are not completing an academic exercise with this project – you are joining a regional effort to evaluate the effects of green space on temperature and air quality, which will be of increasing importance with every passing year. Why is this important?” Further instructions included length, formatting and resource guidelines, including a requirement for students to use three or more of the sources provided by Director of Research Initiatives, Dr. Mark Chandler, in addition to at least one other peer-reviewed source they found on their own.


Map Creation

The heart of the project was the creation of five maps. Given that a universal concern within the citizen science world seems to be “but is the quality of the work good enough?” Prof. McReynolds developed a progressive series of practice maps intended to prepare them to do their highest quality work on the “real” maps surrounding the OHA sensors.


The first practice map was done by hand not electronically for several reasons. Many students were unfamiliar with basic spatial mapping skills, familiarity with different habitat types (e.g. types of vegetation, asphalt vs concrete pavement, etc.), sense of scale and a hand drawn map created a powerful way to build these skills before starting the online mapping. Furthermore, the Habitat Network mapping tool ( does not permit the same area to be mapped repeatedly by different people. The first map was the only map that all the students did of the same location, which permitted the instructor to compare, check for uniform quality, and catch common errors.


For practice map 1, each student was given graph paper and the same color photo taken from Google Maps via the Habitat Network to use as a base for their hand-drawn paper map. The area selected was a location on campus that included a combination of trees, buildings, parking lot, street, and landscaping that was similar to what students would be mapping on their OHA maps. It was also the same size (about 27,000 square feet) as the areas they would be mapping for OHA. The assignment was to make a hand-drawn map on the graph paper of the campus location. Four corners of a square were established and the class walked the perimeter as a group to make sure the boundary was clear.


After each student completed the paper map of an area on campus that was easy to “ground truth” to confirm, Practice Map 2 was assigned. By now, students needed to begin getting acquainted with the Habitat Network mapping tool OHA uses to construct its maps. The instructor set up accounts in Habitat Network and assigned one to each student. This gave the instructor access to their accounts for evaluating their maps. This time the student could choose an area they wanted to map. It had to be the same size as their OHA maps would be, and it had to be in a public place such as a park where they could go and ground truth their map after completion.


Once they decided where they wanted their map to be, they were instructed to use OHA’s Cheatsheet to help them make their map of the area. When complete, they needed to take a screenshot photo of their Habitat Network map and print it out in color as an 8 x 10-inch photo, then visit the site with the photo and check their map for accuracy. They also had to answer a series of questions while they were at the site and submit answers to questions along with their map photo and notes taken at the site. Maps were graded by the instructor using the mapping rubric created by OHA, with a portion of the grade coming from answers to the questions they submitted.



After completing the two practice maps, students were ready to move on to the actual citizen science work—mapping sites surrounding OHA temperature and ozone sensors. Each student was assigned coordinates (supplied by OHA) for three different locations. When their three maps were complete, the final part of the project involved writing a conclusion. This required analysis of the specific activities they completed and a review of the OHA project as a whole.


Student Feedback


Feedback from students was overall very positive and included appreciating the value of the introduction at the start of the project about the real science and applied nature of the project, and, the general usefulness of completing practice maps before embarking on the maps that were linked to sensor locations. Even within the three maps that were linked to sensors (the “real” maps), the students noticed improvement with each map completed. There were also favorable comments on the OHA support available, reflected both by Dr. Chandler’s visit to the classroom and the reference sheets and resources that were present for student use.


The most consistent negative comments received from students in their conclusions were that the first practice map did not seem relevant to the project as a whole. They did not see the value in completing a hand-drawn map when the requirements from OHA were all electronic maps completed through It appears that the students benefitted a lot for the hand drawn maps yet did not appreciate why or how they improved their online mapping skills as a result. Students also drafted a list of comments from students on to help improve Habitat Network: students perceived the website to be slow and awkward to work with, and some of the images had poor quality.


Student Comments

“I think it would be a cool idea to have the class participate together on a project, a more hands-on one that allows them to work together and make a difference in their physical community. “


“This project will go towards mapping out locations in order to test for air. I am glad that a project I have completed will help the environment instead of just serve as a grade for school. For this Earth Science course I do believe this project is necessary in learning what plays a factor in air pollution and it also gives the students of this course a way to help the Earth that they have been learning about all semester. Completing this project has taught me that air quality has a lot more factors going into than just smog. I learned that concrete, asphalt, trees, grass, roofing material and many more aspects all play a key role in the air quality of any area. This project has also taught me that habitat mapping can be very time consuming and tedious. But in the end it feels great to complete them because you know that you are making a positive contribution to Earth. Completing this project has helped me to notice how much I love feeling like I am making a positive contribution. This project’s purpose is much more important than any one human being and I got to make a contribution to that. That is a great feeling.”


Project Feedback and Future

Although they required significantly more work from the students, creating the practice maps seemed very valuable to Prof. McReynolds. Most importantly, Dr. Chandler of OHA reported that the student’s maps were the most accurate and detailed of the various maps OHA received from volunteers.


The hand-drawn practice map 1 showed them clearly just how large the area each map covered was and let them begin to get a sense of what a tree looked like from above compared to what it looked like standing next to it. The second practice map got them working with the Habitat Network and allowed them to work through errors or oddities before they began analyzing actual OHA sensor locations. It also gave them further experience in comparing trees from above with what is actually present at the location. Prof. McReynolds think keeping the hand-drawn map is valuable. Physically walking the perimeter of a square is a helpful learning experience, helping to understand how big that square is and seeing the difference between asphalt and concrete. Because the final maps turned out so well, it seems there may be some hidden success in drawing the original map. However, a change to make for next time would be to spell out more clearly to the students what the purpose of the first practice map is at the beginning.


The new Environmental Science course at Hope that begins in spring semester 2018 will be taking this project even further, with placement of sensors at various locations around Fullerton and then mapping the locations linked to those particular sensors. They are looking forward to contributing further to the data that OHA is collecting and the larger picture of determining how the Los Angeles area will fare as temperatures continue to rise.


Based on feedback from the students and how the instructor saw progress, a few changes will be implemented:

  • Begin earlier in the semester so students can make more maps
  • Let students work with partners—working on maps together would help decrease the chance for mistakes
  • Do a single map together in class as demonstration would be helpful
  • Be more clear about why hand-drawn maps enable skills acquisition relevant to online mapping


One improvement in spring of 2018 will be to explore more about the air temperature and quality data collected at the sites they mapped. The addition of that component, which would permit correlation of temperatures and tree cover, could ratchet student interest up another notch. With non-majors, this is always a good thing.


We are looking forward to exploring more about how to use authentic science in the classroom to create more science literature students. Please send us any thoughts or feedback on this blog!

Leading, Training, and Motivating Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

Ellie Perry has been involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.

Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?

I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start.  Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
(Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?

I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time.  During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field.  To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight.  Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see.  The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie interacting with citizen scientists (Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?

One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist.  Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.

Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?

Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data.  There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all).  It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.  

Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees - citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees – citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?

I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science.  As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well.  Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.  

Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

To explore citizen science opportunities with the UR program, connect with us and learn how to get involved.