SHIPPENSBURG — Fifth-graders at Grace B. Luhrs University Elementary School are studying the quality of the air they breathe and sharing the information through color-coordinated flags on the flagpole outside their school.
“The idea of the school flag program is to get students to be aware of the air quality and things they can do to protect their health,” said George Pomeroy, professor of Earth science at Shippensburg University and a member of the Clean Air Board of Central Pennsylvania. “The kids look at the air quality index locally each day, and they raise a flag based on the air quality.”
The flags were purchased by the Clean Air Board. Each represents a different degree of air quality as determined by the air quality index for the Susquehanna Valley, which includes Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties.
After checking the index, students select the appropriate flag and place it on the flagpole under the U.S. and state flags.
Pomeroy said the green flag is raised when the air quality is “good” (between 0 and 50). Other flags are yellow, to indicate moderate air quality with a score of 51 to 100; orange, to indicate the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups (elderly, children and people with conditions like asthma, heart disease and lung disease), 101 to 150; red, to indicate the air is unhealthy for everyone, 151 to 200; and purple, to indicate the air is hazardous, 201 to 300.
“Air quality is determined by what we put in the air, but (also) the stability of the air masses that move through the area,” Pomeroy said. “So it’s both our own behavior and the weather.”
While the air quality is usually good in this area, Pomeroy said students had to raise the orange flag a couple of times in the last month.
Fifth-grade teacher Diane Root learned about the school flag program from Pomeroy. She said she volunteered to participate because it is a way for her students to “build awareness for air quality, promote things that help improve air quality and also learn how air quality affects their health.”
“We measure the air quality twice a day, and it usually does change between morning and afternoon,” Root said. “It seems to go up. On Monday, it was good, so the green flag was up, and in the afternoon, we measured it and we were at 51, so that’s moderate … and we put the yellow flag up.”
“They think there’s more pollution when it’s colder,” she said. “They’re also becoming interested in air quality around the country. They noticed that California is usually red and orange.”
By comparison, Root said that Pennsylvania is usually green with a few pockets of yellow and orange in the Susquehanna Valley and the Philadelphia area, which the students attribute to truck traffic and air temperature.
Root said the next step will be activities that her students can work on with the school’s second-graders. One of the first projects will be making pollution strips, which students will hang throughout the school and in several locations outside the building.
“It’s a simple piece of paper with three holes, about the size of a quarter,” Root said. “You put a piece of transparent tape over one side and then check to see what contaminants they have picked up.”