San Bernardino Valley College Instructor Involves Students in Regional Air Quality Improvement Effort

SBVC Instructor
Dr. Todd Heibel is involving students in regional air quality improvement effort.

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Students are learning about what it takes to breathe easier at San Bernardino Valley College. In recent years, the campus has become more active with South Coast Air Quality Management District and is on track to address the academic side of an environmental justice issue.

Professor Todd Heibel said last year’s installation of air monitoring sensors around campus now allows students to not only participate in creating social change, but understand the close connections of air quality data, geography, environmental studies and sciences. Dr. Heibel began looking more deeply into local air quality impact about 15 years ago following class visits from Todd Warden, a representative from SCAQMD. Last year, the agency funded the air monitoring sensors, which were placed on several campus buildings. He said it also provides a unique opportunity for students to access technology across several disciplines.

Citizen scientists will also have a role to play in assisting SCQAMD. Through Geographic Information System (GIS), students will learn to assess air quality data, and analyze pollutants. The student-led effort will also collect data, partner with biology students, as well as any other students who want to participate.

“We’re also going to have some of our geography students, physical geography, weather, and climate students, incorporate weather station data,” Dr. Heibel said. “We do really want to be as interdisciplinary as possible.”

Biology faculty are taking an interest in environmental studies. Eventually, Heibel said the campus is looking to start an environmental studies program, which could be a companion piece to the programming.

Heibel has attended quarterly meetings with nonprofits, industry, and other community colleges, with a focus on environmental justice and partnerships. He feels the data can provide the foundation needed to lead to other academic enhancements and policy change. Through his classes, SCAQMD presentations engaged students on the agency’s role in air quality, community partnerships, and the need to track bad air in the Inland area.

He said the GIS maps presented by Warden were very compelling. Students learned that the basin exceeds federal limits for particulate and ozone pollution numerous days per year, and the epicenter is here in the Inland Empire, particularly on the SBVC campus. “We can see what the wind speed was,

the direction, and temperature pressure, etc., on the days when the ozone, particulate matter was absolutely terrible. And, was it within legal limits?” he said.

Last year, SCAQMD sponsored a workshop in partnership with the SBVC campus that sparked great community dialogue, he said. In attendance were students, faculty, staff, administrators, and strong participation from local advocates, including the Sierra Club and CCAEJ founder and former director, Penny Newman. Through SCAQMD, community meetings are regularly held in the area, along with local activist Mary Valdemar, an SBVC representative, who led discussions in the fight for clean air.

Exposure to the data may also lead students into adjacent lucrative fields of the future, to renewable energy, with several related components. The career potential is huge, including broad access to STEM, as well as other fields, such as the SBVC automotive program, which Heibel said is heavily invested in renewables.

“It’s wonderful that we have pioneers on campus that say we can bring non-diesel power alternative fuels to the logistics industry. We’re not enemies of the logistics industry, but can we do this in a cleaner, smarter way?”

The goal is to fully integrate the air sensors into the college curriculum, and get students to the place of data collecting, analyzing, mapping, publishing the data, and develop communication skills. The other benefit is they will gain valuable experience presenting the data at professional conferences.

Most of all, students are learning to be better citizens. He said the process is by students, and for students – and by extension – it’s by the community, and for the community.

“What can we do to mitigate it locally? We’re in the midst of this grand experiment of climate change. Part and parcel of that, our air quality is unacceptable,” he said.

To learn more about San Bernardino Valley College, visit

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