EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — What started as a small experiment is now helping protect thousands of students going to class every day.
“We're very successful, we have no more than one or two new cases of 11,000 students per week,” said Professor Crispin Pierce, of his student research team. “I'm very proud of the work that we're doing.”
Students at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire started this school year testing how well the air we exhale, or carbon dioxide, is circulating inside their classrooms.
The better the ventilation in a room, the lower the chances that COVID-19 can float in the air and get students sick. The students used dry ice to build up the carbon dioxide in a room and then traced how long the gas took to dissipate to determine how safe classrooms were for in-person learning.
As of the end of the winter semester, the students have tested more than two dozen classrooms.
“This is one small element in the important work of protecting our people,” said Pierce.
Their results led their university to act. The administration supplied these air filters wherever the student researchers recommended, in order to make the ventilation good enough for students to feel safe in class.
“We've now installed about 35 or 40 of the air purifiers,” said Pierce.
“We're all just happy to be on campus,” said Professor James Boulter. “Maybe that's the best outcome of all, right, is that we've now managed to return to campus and do classes the way that we love teaching and learning.”
But, the dedicated team of students didn’t stop at their own school.
“We've even, even now, gone to our sister campus,” said Pierce. “The two rooms we found that had most concern was one, a weight room, where young men and young women are working out hard and again, expelling those aerosols. The other room we have very much concern is, again, a choir room where people are standing and singing.”
Protecting their fellow students was only part of their mission. The research team expanded to daycare centers in the surrounding community as well. Students completed the ventilation tests inside the daycare center and then brought in an educational lesson for the young kids at the center.
“We really wanted to make sure that, especially a vulnerable population of younger children, is being safe, and parents don't have to worry about going to work and leaving their kids somewhere that they could bring a disease home,” said Danielle Zahn, a student researcher.
After testing the daycare center rooms for airflow, the students helped the children build COVID filter fans.
“It’s built with a box fan, some cardboard duct tape, and four HEPA air filters,” said student researcher, Alisyn Stevens. “It pulls air from the back of the fan that's facing up. So, the air is coming out of the top, pulls air from the back of the fan through the filters, and clean air out through the top.”
“Something that's convenient, something that's not too complicated, but still ensures their health, and something that does so without breaking the bank,” said Zahn.
“We can extend protection from this disease and future diseases, not just people who can afford expensive HEPA air filtration systems, but also to, you know, maybe inner-city schools that don't have the money to invest in a major infrastructure, refit of their ventilation systems,” said Boulter.
These college students were surprised to find this work inspired more than the younger kids to learn about health.
“That's the best way you can also learn is by teaching kids,” said Stevens.
“I've definitely seen a change in myself, from being more hesitant to having to leave my home in the morning, to more excited about what I can learn in my classes,” said Zahn.
That sense of security is now even more important as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down.
“This isn't something that anybody knows the right answers to. So, we're all learning together. And I think that is an incredible experience, however unfortunate, that we have to go through it,” said Zahn.
The students plan to continue their testing across their campus into the new semester, and they hope to help more surrounding high schools learn how to bring this testing to more locations throughout Wisconsin.