Actively engaging students to improve the quality of life of residents, even during a pandemic

Reggia di Portici
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We breathe air to live…. and what we breathe has a direct impact on our health

Breathing polluted air puts people at a higher risk for eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, allergic reactions, asthma and upper respiratory infections. But it is not only this. Some air pollutants are carcinogens. Thus, living in a polluted area can put people at risk of cancer. Additionally, air pollution may cause other long-term impacts, such as liver, kidney, immune system, endocrine and reproductive system damage, as well as heart and respiratory disease. 

On the other hand, toxic chemicals released into the air settle into plants and water sources, and can  damage crops, forests, and waterbodies. Air pollution also depletes the ozone layer and forms acid rain that harms trees, soils, rivers, and wildlife.  Animals eat the contaminated plants and drink the water, so pollutants travel up the food chain, back again to people. And again human health is adversely affected…

Hence, improving the air we breathe, will in turn improve our health and the environment. This will improve peoples’ quality of life and wellbeing now but also in the future. As reducing air pollution is largely beyond the control of individuals, it requires action by public authorities at the national, regional and local level. 

Recognising the harmful effects of air pollution and the important role local authorities can play to mitigate this, the city of Portici decided to act, and this is how AIR-HERITAGE was born, a project that aims to design and implement effective, participative policies to improve local air quality.
 

Heritage is in fact a very difficult concept to define. According to UNESCO, ‘Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.’ Therefore, clean air, rivers and seas could also be considered important elements of heritage, and should be preserved for future generations. 

The city of Portici understands that the air we breathe is decisive for the quality of our lives and for the urban development of our cities. Hence, improving local air quality is a challenge that the city has taken up in order to improve the quality of life of current and future residents, as well as to protect valuable natural and architectural sites. Clean air is a legacy the city wants to leave behind and this is what AIR-HERITAGE is doing.

So, the city of Portici wants to reduce air pollution and is willing to take action. But how can it best achieve this? 

Students are the future of any city, so by educating and actively engaging students, AIR-HERITAGE is investing in a better, cleaner future, with responsible citizens. Citizens that will understand how their decisions and actions affect the environment, and with the necessary knowledge and skills to address the complex nature of air pollution. In parallel AIR-HERITAGE is investing in a better cleaner present, by encouraging environmentally conscious behaviour and actively working to improve local air quality.

Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world” 
 Nelson Mandela

The question now is, how can students be best engaged?

Let us think back to our own days as a student. Most of us do remember one or more teachers who ultimately inspired us, made us love a specific topic or discipline. Some of us may even remember a specific lesson that has stuck with us for decades. 

AIR-HERITAGE wants to bring that same sense of wonder and excitement to the students it engages! 

Thus, the following ‘engagement principles’ have been adopted, in collaboration with the schools involved:

  • Get teachers engaged….. an engaged teacher is more likely to have engaged students. 

  • Get students interested… kick things off in a memorable way and captivate students interest at the outset

  • Get students engaged… help teachers promote active learning, present interesting examples, allow students to take ownership in their learning, encourage and facilitate discussions and the exchange of knowledge, experience and opinions, as well as do something unexpected and fun for students

  • Get students involved… demonstrate the concept of sustainable transport and let students feel and experience the benefits 

From the beginning, AIR-HERITAGE has actively tried to involve a significant number of students, and in parallel parents and teachers, with the aim to raise their awareness on the impact of everyday choices on air pollution. 

More specifically, environmental educational courses have been introduced in schools. These put emphasis on the fundamental role that every single person can play in protecting the environment and improving the air quality of the city. Students learn about air pollution, for instance sources and causes of air pollution, their personal contribution to pollution, their exposure to pollution and ways to curb air pollution, as well as the importance of monitoring and modelling air quality. As these courses are interactive, and promote discussions in the classroom, students have the opportunity to raise questions and critically process the information provided. As a result, students have become concerned about their contribution but also exposure to air pollution, and have already been thinking of ways to reduce their share to air pollution by changing their behaviour. But learning does not stop in the classroom. Students are enthusiastically further disseminating knowledge and promoting behaviour change to other students, for example through posts in social media and other activities. 

Workshop for students - November 2019

 

In addition to this, numerous workshops have been organised for parents and students that further diffuse AIR-HERITAGE to the local community. During these workshops, participants have the opportunity to share their opinion, discuss problems faced and potential solutions. After each workshop participants can provide feedback during follow up meetings and discussions and help improve future activities. 

First AIR-HERITAGE public event - December 2019

And then, everything changed…. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government in Italy imposed a national quarantine, restricting the movement of the population. The lockdown mandated the temporary suspension of all non-essential economic activities in Italy (e.g. shops and businesses) and the closure of schools. As such, many of the AIR-HERITAGE activities had to be paused or postponed. 

But this does not mean that education stops, nor does it mean that AIR-HERITAGE stopped trying to improve the air we breathe. To maintain momentum, the educational courses were moved on line, and an online questionnaire for students was developed and distributed through the channels that teachers use for their online lessons, but also through other online channels. In this way, students had the opportunity to contribute to AIR-HERITAGE, in particular to the ongoing sociological and statistical surveys, whilst in parallel have some fun.

In the near future, students will be involved in implementing sustainable mobility projects. This is when the real fun will start and AIR-HERITAGE will change the way students move in the city. In particular, groups of students from 9 schools will participate in pedibus, a structured walk from and to school with predetermined stops near students homes. So students will see in practice that they do not have to use a car, a bike, or public transport to go to school, they can just walk. They can all just walk together and improve the present and the future of the city. Thus, with this fun and efficient way, sustainable mobility will be promoted and demonstrated in practice.  Other modes of transport will also be promoted included the use of bicycles and greener public transport.

So, follow us… follow AIR-HERITAGE and get inspired!

You can also explore the AIR-HERITAGE site in Italian.

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