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Middle and Upper Schoolers Rally for Clean Air at State Capitol
Posted 02/27/2017 11:45PM

Students Channel Air-Quality Curriculum While Exercising First Amendment Rights

Seventh-grader Ava Erickson stood behind a podium on the steps of the Utah Capitol and brandished a blue and white surgical mask. She addressed hundreds of peers from Rowland Hall and other local independent schools assembled for the third annual Utah Students for Clean Air Rally January 26.

“See this mask?” she unfalteringly asked the crowd on the below-freezing morning. “I had to wear one of these to school every day for four years. That was how bad the air quality was when I lived in China. I don’t want Utah to end up like China.”

Ava, who’s new to Rowland Hall this school year, said she has friends in China who developed asthma and lung cancer due to pollution. The American Lung Association ranks the Salt Lake area the sixth-worst city in the country for short-term particle pollution. But Ava and her classmates who spoke at the rally expressed optimism that individuals can make a positive difference in Utah’s air quality.

“By doing tiny, small things like not idling your cars, turning your thermostat down, and even just taking the bus, you are helping prevent pollution,” she said. “Every time you do something small to help our air quality, you could be helping save someone’s life.”

Ava and a dozen other Rowland Hall middle and upper schoolers took to the podium at the Capitol. The teachers who organized the event asked student speakers to answer this question: what can students do to improve the quality of air in our valley?

Like Ava, speakers trumpeted practical tips: walk, bike, carpool, take public transportation, ensure homes are energy efficient, avoid burning wood as a heat source, unplug unused appliances, and turn off lights when you leave rooms.

The entire Rowland Hall Middle School attended the rally, along with Ben Smith’s Upper School environmental science class. In sixth grade, air quality is part of the curriculum. Sixth graders study, record, and analyze air quality in Molly Lewis’ science class—read more in this February 2016 Fine Print article.

Indeed, Rowland Hall student speakers such as senior Marguerite Tate discussed the science behind poor air quality and the significance of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers. “It’s small enough to get anywhere in your lungs,” Marguerite said. “It affects everyone—it doesn’t matter if you don’t have asthma or if you don’t have problems breathing.” Beyond giving students the opportunity to speak publicly about a scientific topic they’ve studied, the rally gave middle and upper schoolers a chance to practice their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly.

The rally, sixth-grader Aileen Robles said, let students speak for Utahns who want clean air but can’t necessarily take the time to lobby for it. “We also learned how much people care about this, and how much it has to be pushed, and how our voices need to be heard,” she said.

In a post-rally discussion, some of Ms. Lewis’ students asked how much of a difference an individual can make on topics such as local air quality. Sixth-grader Kate Brague chimed in on the value of leadership: if there’s one person “willing to take the reins,” more people will follow, she said. And if student activism falls short, Ms. Lewis reminded her sixth graders that when they turn 18, they gain the right to vote. Later, they can even run for office. “You can be the change,” the teacher said.

Media coverage of Rowland Hall at the Utah Students for Clean Air Rally

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