Empowering Rwandan schools with air quality education and action

On 30 March 2024 at 10:31

Children’s vulnerability to air pollution is notably high due to their rapid breathing rates, developing respiratory systems, and less mature immune defenses. These factors make them particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of air pollution, highlighting the importance of focusing on this demographic in pollution impact assessments.

Chronic exposure to air pollution, especially in educational settings, has been associated with a range of negative health outcomes such as increased respiratory issues, diminished lung function, more frequent school absences, and decreased cognitive abilities.

In response to these challenges, Egide Kalisa, an Assistant Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, initiated an innovative air pollution education campaign in Rwandan schools, dubbed #HumekaNeza (Breathe Easy).

In 2023, Prof. Kalisa’s research, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal, revealed that air pollutant levels during school drop-off hours were more than double those during off-peak times. This underscored the significant impact of vehicle emissions on school premises in Rwanda.

Building on this finding, Prof. Kalisa launched an educational initiative aimed at raising awareness about air pollution among school children. The campaign includes discussions about the science of air pollution, anti-idling efforts, and the introduction of an Air Quality Flag Program. This program employs low-cost sensors and colorful flags to inform school communities about the current air quality, both outdoors and indoors.

Prof. Kalisa’s approach involves interactive workshops that empower children to use air quality sensors and monitors, enabling them to collect and analyze data firsthand. This hands-on experience not only enriches their STEM education but also personalizes their understanding of air pollution. The initiative seeks to heighten students’ awareness and motivate them to minimize their exposure to air pollution, particularly around cooking activities.

Moreover, Prof. Kalisa has taken several measures to assess and improve the air quality in schools. These measures include the installation of air pollution monitors, the use of air purifiers in classrooms, the planting of trees (allocating one tree per student), and advice on optimal times for outdoor play and choosing cleaner routes to school.

The campaign kicked off at Kigali Parents School and Dove International Montessori School in Kigali. Students were educated on air pollution monitoring, launching anti-idling campaigns, and managing air quality flags based on real-time pollution data. They also expressed their understanding and concerns about air pollution through art, creating posters that encourage mitigation efforts and positioning themselves as change agents.

As the campaign concluded, the participating students penned letters to their parents, urging them to join the fight against air pollution. They suggested practical steps such as avoiding car idling, considering electric vehicles, and monitoring air quality at home.

Prof. Kalisa’s efforts were recognized when he received the Most Outstanding Research Contribution Award from the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), acknowledging his work in addressing national societal challenges. His campaign is a part of the "HELTH" research group, which focuses on the nexus of human health, environmental quality, transportation, urbanization, and the use of citizen science to bolster air quality policies in sub-Saharan Africa and Canada.

Utilizing electric cars and encouraging parents and drivers to turn off their vehicles when parked at schools can effectively decrease air pollution.